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Is your manuscript peppered with comma splices? Often authors aren’t aware they’re using commas to do a job they aren’t designed for.

Be Your Own Copy Editor #12

Try as I might, I can never quite get into novels written by Kate Atkinson. It’s not the content that puts me off but the punctuation. Her books – at least the ones I’ve dipped into – are shrines to comma splices. I only have to see a few before I’m pulled out of the story and focus on the commas – which, if you’re an author, is the last thing you want your readers to do.

Here’s a line at the beginning of chapter two of Atkinson’s One Good Turn to illustrate.

He didn’t even kill flies in the house, instead he patiently stalked them, trapping them with a glass and plate before letting them free.

The first comma is a comma splice. In other words, a comma is separating two independent clauses, a job it’s not powerful enough to do by itself. That comma is the proverbial knife being brought to a gunfight. If you wanted to bring a gun to the gunfight, you’d use a semicolon or full stop:

He didn’t even kill flies in the house; instead he patiently stalked them . . .


He didn’t even kill flies in the house. Instead he patiently stalked them . . .

We know the clauses are independent because each has a subject (‘he’ in both cases) and a verb (‘kill’ and ‘stalked’). You can glue two independent clauses together with a coordinating conjunction (‘and’, ‘but’, ‘for’, ‘nor’, ‘or’, ‘so’ or ‘yet’) but not with the word Atkinson has used, the adverb ‘instead’, which is a discourse marker and lacks the necessary adhesive ability.

If you’ve got a comma splice on your hands, you can fix it by changing the punctuation, as in the examples above, or by adding a coordinating conjunction from the list. For example, we could use ‘and’ or ‘but’ to correct Atkinson’s sentence:

He didn’t even kill flies in the house, and instead he patiently stalked them . . .

He didn’t even kill flies in the house but instead patiently stalked them . . .

(In the second example the sentence has been rewritten slightly and is now a compound predicate.) If I was editing the sentence, though, I would simply suggest replacing the comma with a full stop like I did in the second rewrite:

He didn’t even kill flies in the house. Instead he patiently stalked them . . .

I find it hard to imagine that no one during the editing of all Kate Atkinson’s novels has ever delicately pointed out to her that she’s an inveterate comma splicer. I suspect she knows she does it but likes her sentences that way. Authors tend to develop their own punctuation systems, particularly when it comes to the use of commas. Maybe they think about syntax when punctuating, but their style might also be based on how they hear a sentence when they read it, where they take a breath when reading it, or how a sentence looks on the page. Copy editors, on the other hand, should be thinking about syntax first and foremost, which is what I have done here. I’ve talked about adverbs, conjunctions and independent clauses, but not about where I’d want to take a breath when reading Atkinson’s sentence or how it looks.

I often wonder whether some of the comma splicing I see is related to the fact that semicolons are so unfashionable. It may be that, in the example above, Atkinson considered a full stop before ‘instead’ too hard a break. If that was the case, in theory she should have chosen a semicolon, since one of its jobs is to link two closely related independent clauses, but the semicolon isn’t getting a lot of love these days, and many writers avoid it like the plague. I send out a questionnaire to authors before working with them, and a disdain for semicolons is so prevalent that among questions like ‘Have you taken fiction writing classes?’ and ‘How would you summarize your writing style?’ is ‘Do you either like or dislike using semicolons?’ So perhaps Atkinson is aware that she’s a comma splicer but chooses to continue to be one because she wouldn’t be seen dead using a semicolon.

A lot of writers whose manuscripts I edit, however, aren’t aware that they’re comma splicing, and I’m not sure that the standard advice given, which I’ve given above — add a coordinating conjunction after the comma, or replace the comma with a semicolon or full stop — is that useful on its own, since I suspect they aren’t always sure what independent clauses look like. So in part two of this blog I’ll give some advice on how to recognize them.

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