Comma Splices Fused Sentences and Conjunctions How to Properly Punctuate Your Clauses
Ah, the comma. They seem so innocent hanging there unassumingly in the middle of our sentences. A comma here and there is all we need to connect a chaotic mess of words. Or so I thought. Commas seem easy to use, but they are also easy to misuse. Here are a few pointers for making your writing classy and comma-error free.
Commas are important in writing because they help us to connect ideas fluently and create natural pauses just like there would be in normal speech. They help to eliminate confusion and make our sentences more complex. However, they can contribute to confusion or at least to lower grades when your comma-speckled paper is being turned in. My goal here is to help you to eliminate both.
Comma splices are probably the most common comma error. Two complete clauses become lashed together by only a comma when they are actually in need of a comma and conjunction to be a truly happy sentence. Here is an example:
I ate fourteen muffins, I smiled mischievously.
As is, the sentence is a little unclear because we are unsure if smiling mischievously has anything to do with eating fourteen muffins or not. Because the two events are listed one after the other it appears that they are connected, but the goal is to make our writing unquestionably clear. Both parts of the sentence are currently independent clauses. An independent clause is a part of a sentence that contains a subject and a verb and can stand alone. If we placed a period after muffins and made two separate sentences then both parts would still make sense on their own. In order to be one sentence there must be a comma and a conjunction word, (and, but, for, nor, or, so, yet, etc). Observe:
I ate fourteen muffins, and I smiled mischievously.
Now the connection between the mischievous smiling and the muffin eating is clear. With both a comma and a conjunction word, the sentence becomes lucid.
Another comma error, which is my personal nemesis, is the run-on or fused sentence. This is similar to the comma splice only the comma is forsaken completely. This leaves us with too much sentence at one time. Example:
Students should not walk on the grass if they do they should not do it often how would you feel if someone walked on you?
Ack! Look at all those independent clauses devoid of punctuation or conjunctions! A good way to avoid this is to break up a long sentence and see if one part of it could stand alone. Read the sentence aloud and see if there are natural pauses or awkward parts where conjunctions should be. Is the last part of the sentence talking about the same thing as the first part? Try it like this:
Students should not walk on the grass, but if they do they should not do it often. How would you feel if someone walked on you?
The second version is much more comprehensible thanks to a comma, a conjunction, and a period creating a new sentence. The thing to remember is that independent clauses must be independent sentences or have a comma and/or conjunction, or in some cases a semicolon or colon. Commas are useful to create pauses and clarity, but they cannot be relied upon to string together endless ideas. Commas cannot remedy fused sentences by themselves. Commas and conjunctions are a team.
There are times when commas should not be used no matter how attached we’ve become. If an independent clause is followed by a dependent clause, no comma is needed. In these cases commas create an unnecessary pause. Let me illustrate:
I started to write the essay, and became depressed.
Because became depressed makes no sense alone it is a dependent clause and must be attached to the independent clause at the beginning of the sentence. No comma is needed because the dependent clause is a natural continuation of the sentence. Take a gander:
I started to write the essay and became depressed.
That sentence is much more fluid, and no comma was used.
This is a sadly abridged article to explain the intricate web of comma usage. We have not had time to explore commas in regard to introductory clauses, parenthetical elements, to separate coordinating adjectives or to list things. It’s a shame there is not more time to discuss this quirky piece of punctuation
Finally, please remember that commas are our friends. They shouldn’t make us feel chained down in our writing or haunt our dreams. Commas are simply a tool to create clearer, more complex writing. Feel free to experiment with all the unconventional uses of the comma, but it’s probably best to keep the experimenting limited to non-academic writing. Good luck!