Rant by Morgan Bell: Why cant I use a comma splice?

Posted by Morgan Bell on February 12, 2018 at 2:00 AM

Rant by Morgan Bell

Why can’t I use a comma splice?

Every once in a while I encounter a grammar nazi, sometimes it can happen several times a day, sometimes I can go months without stirring the beast.

See what I just did there? That is called a comma splice. I joined three independent, but related, clauses with a comma only. I didn’t supplement the comma with a conjunction, and I didn’t end each clause with a full stop.

On this one hallowed eve in the not too distant past I found myself engaging in what is known as an ‘internet argument’.

There is a saying about internet arguments. My opponent immediately proved the following internet forum laws:

• Shaker's Law - those who announce their imminent departure almost never actually leave

• Law of Exclamation - the more exclamation points the more likely it is a complete lie

• Danth's Law - anyone who declares themselves victorious has probably lost

They asserted that my defence of the comma splice as a legitimate way of separating clauses in a run on sentence was a slippery slope to the ruination of the English language, and thusly would lead to the dismantling of the publishing careers of every individual who viewed it. My dissenting view was a grammar Medusa, turning aspiring and emerging writers to stone if they stole a single glance.

The ability to read and write is strongly linked to social class and wealth. Many of the ‘rules’ of grammar, spelling, and punctuation come down to regional preferences. The ‘rules’ are not set in stone, they evolve over time to reflect common usage. Grammar is the documentation of how people speak, devised through observation, and the identification of patterns, by linguists. There was no grammar bible sent from the heavens.

As a technical writer I was taught to consider the purpose, audience, and delivery media of any document or text when making choices about style, tone, and register. As a regular human being on the internet I acknowledge that the register of social media is generally informal. Writing a status update is supposed to be conversational. Facebook is an interactive forum, where people casually build upon each other’s ideas. The delivery of information is often from the touch screens of smart phones.

The language used in online chat and text messages is a recognised type of shorthand that has evolved due to limited characters and limited time. Online communications are different to that of a business report or an academic paper. With creative writing, the purpose is often to reflect back reality. Contemporary characters, or even the narrator, may utilise online shorthand to achieve authenticity of voice.

The purpose of punctuation is to aid in the understanding and correct reading of texts. We insert small marks, signs, or symbols, to divide a block of text into sentences and clauses. When choosing between a full-stop, comma, semi-colon, dash or bracket, we are instructing the reader on where to pause, and how long for. The marks direct us on how to read a text in the way it would be spoken so we can accurately interpret its meaning.

Meaning. Conveying meaning. The purpose of communication.

Next time you feel the urge to correct someone on their grammar or punctuation do two things:

1. Check your surroundings. Are you online?

2. Reread the text that just enraged you. Do you understand the meaning?

Why should the comma splice be outlawed as a matter of course? Grammar shouldn’t be there to knock people down, belittle them, or quash creativity. It should be a guide, a writer’s tool, to improve understanding, when transcribing thoughts or feelings or stories.

This article was originally published on the Hunter Writers Centre blog 27 May 2015 in a polemic competition to attract comments for a prize (updated to remove ableist terminology).

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