Monday, July 23, 2007

A Defense of the Comma Splice

If you spend any time on internet messageboards--the subject of the forum is immaterial--there is always one very uptight hypergrammarian in the bunch, who cannot bear the relaxed diction that is the rule online. I can hardly blame such people--I used to be like that, too. I remember, back in the day, the way "alright" used to drive me up the wall (perhaps that's why it took me a lot longer to appreciate The Who than it did The Beatles and The Stones).

But, I dunno, maybe it's that I'm older, or that I've gotten accustomed to internet discourse, but grammar errors just don't bother me so much anymore. In the newspaper, sure--but in casual correspondence and fiction, no. Increasingly I regard grammar and punctuation as arenas of artistic achievement, open to broad usage and interpretation. And the one issue I've come around furthest on is the comma splice.

To wit, a sentence like this...

She stood up, she brushed herself off, the audience applauded.

...which is technically incorrect. The proper punctuation would be...

She stood up; she brushed herself off; the audience applauded.

...because you're supposed to separate independent clauses with semicolons, not commas, as any high school English teacher will tell you, and probably has, in red Flair pen.

But one legitimate use of the comma is to separate items in a list, and in my view, an independent clause could be considered an item. So what we have in the first example is a list of clauses (or, specifically, of actions and events) separated by commas. Now, this may seem like a stretch, but it allows the writer to acccentuate the separateness of those events without losing the impression of brisk narrative flow. In other words, in sentence #1, these three things occur in a kind of rolling fashion--we perceive them as one event with three parts, rather than merely as three related events, as the second sentence would suggest. The words are the same, the connotation is different. Depending on the context--who the woman in the sentence is, what she's doing, who is watching--a writer might want to choose one over the other.

I suppose I support anything that allows the writer a greater range of expression. With this greater range, of course, comes greater difficulty, since you're undermining the foundations of written language--you have to be more skillful at creating a believeable, sustainable universe for the reader, without relying as much on the basics. But the tradeoff is worth it, in my view.

So there you go. Comma splice good. Take that, Miss Peachtree!


Writer, Rejected said...

As long as the sentence is clear, a good writer can break any rule. In particular, I agree with your defense of the comma (technically comma splice) when used in a list of short N+V sentences as per your example. Hooray for a little freedom, I say. I find the grammar police on most blogs to be amusing and arrogant in a pleasantly familiar way.

jrlennon said...

Yeah, they're part of the scenery now, like plastic grocery sacks on the side of the highway!

Miss Peachtree said...

Finally, you're thinking outside the box, not in a way I'd publically condone, but bravo!