6

Here is an excerpt from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy:

'He threw away a copy of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat , he threw away a copy of Godspell: he wouldn't need them where he was going.'

My understanding is that independent clauses should be separated by a conjunction, a semi-colon, or a full-stop. Therefore, shouldn't this sentence read

'He threw away a copy of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat ; he threw away a copy of Godspell: he wouldn't need them where he was going.'

Although I think the second sentence is technically correct, I would say that the first sentence is more natural. If commas and semi-colons can be thought of as cues for how long we should pause when reading a sentence, then the first sentence is a clear winner. So is Douglas Adams breaking a punctuation rule in the interests of readability, or is no rule being broken at all?

8
  • It seems that comma splice is now considered legitimate. Many members here use it regularly in comments and some even in answers; and at least one senior member (I forget who because it was 2 months back when I was new here) advised me outright that comma splice is preferable to semicolon in modern English writing. Commented Jul 15, 2017 at 1:43
  • 8
    @Student. Boo. incorrect usage by senior members does not justify it. It is still incorrect usage, although comment sections are hardly the best example of a context where proper use plays an important role. In formal writing, the comma splice ought to be avoided.
    – Octopus
    Commented Jul 15, 2017 at 3:09
  • 4
    Tradition seems to be the only basis for anything in any language. The only reason "cat" doesn't mean the same as "dog" is that people have, for a long time, agreed on the meanings of these words. The difference between commas and semicolons is based on the same sort of tradition. Commented Jul 15, 2017 at 5:11
  • 2
    Also, much discussion on this point at What stylistic or grammatical reasons prevent users, and grammarians, from reaching agreement on the acceptability of the comma splice?. Essentially, the 'don't join two independent clauses with merely a comma' mantra is a rule-of thumb (but usually best obeyed). Barbara Wallraff has, for instance, said: ... Commented Jun 14, 2020 at 16:04
  • 3
    "[Take the sentence] 'It's not a comet, it's a meteor.' ... punctuating this sentence with a semicolon would be like using a C-clamp to hold a sandwich together." Commented Jun 14, 2020 at 16:09

3 Answers 3

8

Is it more accurate to call punctuation rules 'traditions' or 'conventions'?

To my mind, the word "convention" refers to a shared practice that was adopted to serve some perceived practical purpose and that continues (at least arguably) to serve such a purpose today, whereas a "tradition" refers to a shared practice that need not have any other justification for its continuing existence than that we or our predecessors did it in the past.

I would use the term "convention" rather than "tradition" to describe usage rules such as the one against using a comma to separate independent clauses that are not connected by conjunctions. Likewise, putting a period rather than a comma at the end of a declarative sentence is a convention, and so is using single or double quotation marks rather than commas to indicate a "words used as word." It is certainly possible to replace all of the conventional punctuation marks in the paragraph I am now writing with commas—treating them as, in effect, a unitary way to convey the idea, "a punctuation mark of some kind goes here"—and still have a consistent graphical representation of a grammatical utterance. Looking at it, however, you can see why writers and readers might find conventions that entail the use of punctuation marks besides commas (in addition to the convention of using capitalization to indicate the beginning of a new sentence) for particular purposes to be quite valuable:

I would use the term, convention, rather than, tradition, to describe usage rules such as the one against using a comma to separate independent clauses that are not connected by conjunctions, likewise, putting a period rather than a comma at the end of a declarative sentence is a convention, and so is using single or double quotation marks rather than commas to indicate a, word used as word, it is certainly possible to replace all of the conventional punctuation marks in the paragraph I am now writing with commas, treating them as, in effect, a unitary way to convey the idea, a punctuation mark of some kind goes here, and still have a consistent graphical representation of a grammatical utterance, looking at it, however, you can see why writers and readers might find conventions that entail the use of punctuation marks besides commas, in addition to the convention of using capitalization to indicate the beginning of a new sentence, for particular purposes to be quite valuable,

The language is the same. All I've done is replace more-or-less standard conventions for using quotation marks, periods, dashes, parentheses, and sentence-case initial capping with comma-only punctuation and capping only of the pronoun I. Has the grammar changed? No—not if you accept the view that grammar is fundamentally an attribute of spoken language. Punctuation isn't spoken; it's added to the plain words of speech in writing to clarify the internal connections of certain words, phrases, and clauses. Consistent, conventional punctuation helps readers follow the flow of writing with a minimum of misreadings, false starts, and sheer bewilderment.

Because it is based on convention rather than on linguistic necessity, punctuation is sometimes treated as an arbitrary and artificial construct of ignorant or officious rule enforcers—"fake grammar," as it were. But in orthography, as in other spheres of human activity, convention is a powerful force for coherence and shared meaning.


What justification is there for the rule against comma splices?

Viewed in isolation, the convention against comma splices may seem unnecessary and ultimately unjustified. After all,

I never liked school, it was boring and repetitive most of the time.

isn't materially more difficult to parse than

I never liked school. It was boring and repetitive most of the time.

or

I never liked school; it was boring and repetitive most of the time.

But when the wording appears in a larger context, issues of interrupted narrative flow and misdirection become apparent. For example:

I know that some people have fond memories of spending most of their waking life in childhood attending school, they recall the joy of learning, the camaraderie with fellow students, and the opportunity to explore creative tasks, I never liked school, it was boring and repetitive most of the time.

The only unconventional aspect of this block of text is its rejection of the convention against comma splices. Three sentences become one; and because the text is punctuated as a single continuous sentence with two internal comma splices, the word they—which would start a new sentence if the text were punctuated conventionally—is not initial-capped. The comma splices damage the flow of the text and force readers to feel their way carefully through the text to make sure that they haven't run through an ambiguous stop sign and misread the sense of the clause that follows each comma.

The conventional rule against comma splices thus promotes a valuable purpose in limiting the province of things that a comma (which in any event may perform a multitude of functions in writing) can properly signal. By insisting that colons, semicolons, and periods—but not commas—should play the role of indicating abrupt breaks in written text at the end of complete clauses, the convention frees readers from having to include "hard break signal" among the possible meanings of any particular comma they encounter.

3
  • 3
    +1 But I think it would be useful to point out that punctuation is nevertheless based on spoken language, and is in fact an attempt to duplicate the pauses (,), breaks (— or ...), stops (. or :) or things in between (;) that speakers use to delimit their utterances. So ... if the "linguistic necessity" is absent from academic linguistics regarding such pauses in spoken speech, perhaps that is a lacuna that ought to be filled in. As a music teacher once told me, "You have to play the rests just as diligently as you play the notes!"
    – Robusto
    Commented Nov 6, 2017 at 22:26
  • That may be the reason why this answer to a closely related earlier question suggests that the comma splice closely follows a 'conversational' or 'spoken style' @Robusto. If a modern user knowingly chooses the comma splice over the semicolon it might be because they think the comma splice better reflects their way of speaking that written sentence. A comma splice makes a shorter pause than a semicolon. As in, "punctuation attempts to accurately duplicate the pauses, you have to play the rests just as diligently as you play the notes!" Commented Nov 7, 2017 at 18:00
  • (contd) It may also possibly reflect the style of speaking closely linked sentences with only a small pause in some languages other than English, @Robusto. Commented Nov 7, 2017 at 18:02
4

The comma splice is incorrect according to styling guides in general, but styling guides don't apply to works of fiction in general. A fiction author is free to take poetic license at his or her own peril or to his or her own profit. Some prominent authors in the world of literature earned their prominence by purposefully breaking the "rules" (which should more aptly be called "the status quo").

Your correction is also incorrect. There are three clauses joined in it. That's just overly verbose. A more correct way to do it would be to split it into three sentences, as:

He threw away a copy of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. He threw away a copy of Godspell. He wouldn't need them where he was going.

You can alternatively rewrite these three sentences by combination:

He threw away a copy of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Godspell; he wouldn't need them where he was going.

But again, I'd like to emphasize that an author is free to write however he or she wants. It's up to the readers how to judge it. The lesson here is: don't try to infer rules of grammar from works of fiction especially. Actual style guides are your de factor reference for those.

1
1

Veni, vidi, vici: I came, I saw, I conquered. This construction is often cited as an example of short clauses joined by commas to good effect.

On rare occasions, joining independent clauses with only a comma may be acceptable—for example, when the clauses are very short and have the same form, when the tone is informal and conversational, or when you feel the sentence rhythm calls for it.

Live by the sword, die by the sword."

CliffsNotes

2
  • 1
    But why is allowed to be a good model for English constructions?
    – Conrado
    Commented Jun 14, 2020 at 12:22
  • 1
    @Conrado In the lower grades in U.S. schools, many grammar rules are taught as absolute so as not to get into areas that would confuse and frustrate young students. Never starting a sentence with "and" is one such rule. Never split infinitives is another. Not joining clauses with a comma is a similar rule. Later, one finds out these rules, though in general desirable, are not absolute. R.L. Stevenson's advice to a budding writer was ". . . never let a long sentence get out of hand. And never to bother with English grammar." Advice and example in one sentence.
    – Zan700
    Commented Jun 14, 2020 at 20:23

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.