inessential by Brent Simmons

Shock the Monocle

If you write for the web, you hope that people will see your words as something other than a pepper of random letters on an otherwise-unspoiled page.

You hope people will take your arguments seriously. You hope people won’t think you’re a dingbat.

So you’ve mastered it’s vs. its — and you try not to use dashes too much. You’ve learned that the passive voice has its uses; you’ve learned how to build sentences and paragraphs with parallel construction; you’ve learned to use the Oxford comma.

You’re aces in my book.

But there’s this one thing — you’re still using comma splices.

(If you’re not, you can stop reading right now. This post isn’t about you.)

Picture me, a gray-haired gentleman holding up my one lens to peer closely at your writing, with a sad warble in my voice as I mutter, “Dingbats. Foamheads. Simpleminds.” (Yes, that’s exactly how I talk to myself.)

“Oh woe,” I say.

What’s a comma splice?

Except under extraordinarily rare circumstances — unless you’re Charles Dickens, for instance — you can’t use a comma to separate two independent clauses.


Comma splices are bad, you shouldn’t use them.


Comma splices are bad. You shouldn’t use them.

Also acceptable:

Comma splices are bad; you shouldn’t use them.
Comma splices are bad — you shouldn’t use them.
Comma splices are bad and you shouldn’t use them.
Comma splices are bad, my dear Mr. Chalmesworthy; hence it prevails upon us all to use Providence as our guide and eschew their use, as we heartily eschew all mortal sins.

Confession of an 11th-grader

I was the editorial editor of the high school newspaper and my favorite writer was Hemingway. I used comma splices all the time.

My English teacher — the newspaper advisor, Mrs. Susie — finally got fed up with it and said, “Two sentences are two sentences! Even Hemingway knew that!”

So he did. Vonnegut knew it too. And Carver and Woolf. And you too.