Breaking the Rules Part Two: Comma Splices

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A frayed rope with a knot in the middle lying on rocky ground.

Welcome to the second part of breaking the rules. This post in the series is about comma splices in fiction.

In my previous post dealing with sentence fragments, I ended with an analogy of formal dancing, and how it’s conventional for the lead to influence the partner’s movements, but this doesn’t always have to be the case. Really, you can cook up any analogy about convention and liken it to creative writing. The important thing to remember is that there are no set-in-stone rules! Just conventions and preferences.

Here’s what will be covered in today’s post:

  • what a comma splice is
  • why it is considered wrong
  • what it can accomplish in fiction

What is a comma splice?

A comma splice is when you use a comma to separate two independent clauses which could otherwise stand on their own. For example:

Writing this story is too hard, the characters just don’t seem to have any life.

Both sides of the comma could have been separated in multiple ways:

  • writing this story is too hard; the characters just don’t seem to have any life.
  • writing this story is too hard – the characters just don’t seem to have any life.
  • writing this story is too hard. The characters just don’t seem to have any life.

When using a comma, especially in formal writing, to separate the clauses, you’d better be prepared to have someone point it out!

What is so wrong with them?

Richard Bradburn’s book Self-editing for Self-publishers mentions that historically, comma splices used to be more acceptable in the past.

He uses the example commonly cited when addressing comma splices in fiction: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness’. He says that while Charles Dickens got away with it back then, it would be ‘frowned upon’ in modern literature. However, while this book is of course full of great advice, I disagree here. It’s still very much acceptable in fiction today, and for good reason (which we’ll get to soon).

While comma splices like the example at the beginning don’t seem to cause much of a problem comprehension-wise, and only seem to get pointed out because of the knowledge that they’re not ‘normal’, there are times when splices trip people up. Enter the list:

Yesterday I managed to get some exercise in: I went to the park, I went swimming. It was overall a decent day.

When we as readers anticipate a list (both by the context of the beginning of the sentence, and the use of a comma) we place a particular stress pattern on the words.

When you finished the word ‘swimming’, you likely was prepared to internally speak as if there was another item of the list ready to roll off your tongue.

This causes the reader to backtrack, if only for a second. As a writer, you don’t want to give any cause for confusion. As a part of lists, a comma splice is generally best avoided, fiction or not; however, they can be used to good effect.

As part of lists, a comma splice is generally best avoided, fiction or not.

How can you use comma splices in fiction?

Below are a few ways comma splices aid your writing, not hinder it.

To capture a particular speech/thought pattern

When attempting to capture emotions or character’s voice, punctuation can better serve the cause by portraying realistic rhythm and pauses found in natural speech, rather than adhering to strict rules.

It was him, he’s lying, he’s definitely lying.

Each one of those clauses can stand on its own:

It was him. He’s lying. He’s definitely lying.

The second option completely dismantles the image of a frenzied, panicked state of mind. Whereas the second exudes an air of control and calm. If you want to portray panic, go with the former.

In small sentences

Sometimes, clauses are so small that a comma barely has an effect, and would seem odd if separated by a full stop.

Take, for example, the well-known ‘I came, I saw, I conquered’, or ‘It’s not you, it’s me’ – we say such things without much pause in-between, so it won’t make sense to punctuate otherwise.

Even a guide as strict and prescriptivist as The Elements of Style says, ‘If the clauses are very short, and are alike in form, a comma is usually permissible’.

To create atmosphere

A general tip in writing regarding pacing is when you’re writing high-tension scenes, use short, snappy sentences; but use long ones when wishing to slow down the tension, allowing for more descriptive, atmospheric scenes. Here’s a couple of examples:

He saw no individuals, he was conscious of a froth of pink faces, of waving arms and garments, he felt the occult influence of a vast crowd pouring over him, buoying him up. – H. G. Wells, When the Sleeper Wakes.

The mad symphony of horrors continues, human utterances joined by a low register organ crash, a baritone hum lingering, as the exhortations in Vietnamese and in Lao continue, cut by screams, cackles, and howls from human and hound. – T.E. Grau, I Am The River.

The first contains several splices: after ‘individuals’, after ‘faces’ and after ‘garments’. The second contains one splice: after ‘continues’.

Punctuation can better serve the cause by portraying realistic rhythm and pauses.

Final thoughts...

So there it is! Comma splices, just like many supposed rules, can (and indeed are) used in fiction. And to great effect. Just be sure to use them with purpose and intent, such as:

  • to capture realistic speech or thought patterns that would otherwise be too stilted when punctuating according to convention
  • when both clauses are small enough to get away with it, without danger of confusion or a miscue
  • to create stronger atmosphere or to take a breather from high-tension scenes
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