Welcome to Fiction+
This is the first post in a brand-new section of Shop Talk called Fiction+. At Fiction+ I’ll be inviting my colleague (and Shop Talk alum) Carol Saller to join me in writing about editorial and stylistic considerations for novels, stories, and other creative genres.
Most of the time we’ll be sticking closely to the rules and recommendations in CMOS. But this is our chance to show how those guidelines can be reinterpreted to take advantage of creative opportunities. We’ll look for examples from the real world and invent some of our own. And from time to time we’ll be interviewing writers to get their take on things.
For this first post, I’ll be taking a look at comma splices. Next time, Carol will be interviewing novelist, poet, and playwright Janet Burroway about the tenth edition of Writing Fiction, her best-selling guide for creative writers.
What is a comma splice?
Most writers and editors learn not to join (or splice*) two independent clauses with a comma alone. The comma splice, also known as a comma fault (both terms are in Merriam-Webster), is widely considered to be an error.
Here’s an example of a comma splice:
A period is stronger than a semicolon, a semicolon is stronger than a comma.
The result is a type of run-on sentence,† and again, most writers and editors (and teachers too) will see this as an error. Most of us also know how to fix such an error—for example, by replacing the comma with either a semicolon or a period or by supplying a coordinating conjunction:
A period is stronger than a semicolon; a semicolon is stronger than a comma.
A period is stronger than a semicolon. A semicolon is stronger than a comma.
A period is stronger than a semicolon, and a semicolon is stronger than a comma.
In most prose, creative or otherwise, any of these alternatives will be an improvement over the comma splice.
Is a comma splice ever “correct”?
Even Strunk and White recognized that a comma splice is sometimes the best choice. For example, where the clauses are repetitive and short, a comma splice can work well, especially if the tone is informal:
A comma splice isn’t an error, it’s an option.
A comma splice isn’t an error; it’s an option.
A comma splice isn’t an error. It’s an option.
A comma splice isn’t an error—it’s an option.
A comma splice isn’t an error (it’s an option).
A comma splice isn’t an error, so it’s an option.
Each alternative introduces a different emphasis. The comma, the weakest of the available marks, suggests the closest possible relationship between the two ideas. A semicolon provides a more formal way of conveying a close relationship. A period marks a definitive break (a full stop, in British parlance). A dash is abrupt and emphatic. A parenthesis presents the second clause as . . . (well, parenthetical). A conjunction implies a specific relationship between the two clauses.
Which alternative you choose will depend on context and tone.
OK, but what about fiction?
In fiction, comma splices are less of a big deal. The classic example is from A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
An overzealous editor would’ve fixed all of that (while also removing the comma before “that”) without another thought:
It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom; it was the age of foolishness. . . . We were all going direct to Heaven; we were all going direct the other way. In short, the period was so far like the present period that . . .
To be fair, the punctuation in the rest of the novel is more conventional; in fact, it’s filled with semicolons, not comma splices. (Dickens is so nineteenth century.) But in that famous catalog of dichotomies that opens the book? Anything other than commas would have spoiled the momentum.
Comma splices are especially suited to dialogue or interior discourse, in part because people repeat themselves. Consider the opening sentence of the third and final section of Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse (first published in 1927):
What does it mean then, what can it all mean? Lily Briscoe asked herself, wondering whether, since she had been left alone, it behooved her to go to the kitchen to fetch another cup of coffee or wait here.
Another question mark in place of a comma—“What does it mean then? What can it all mean?”—might suggest a little too strongly that Lily Briscoe is demanding an answer rather than taking refuge in her own thoughts to begin to make sense of the passage of time and the people that it leaves behind (as a writer or an artist might do).
In creative writing, of course, you can do whatever you want . . . right?
Not quite. Every style, no matter how innovative, needs to adhere to some sort of logic to be effective. Consider the opening sentences from Blindness, a novel by José Saramago that was first published in 1995 in Portuguese and then translated into English by Giovanni Pontiero and published in 1997:
The amber light came on. Two of the cars ahead accelerated before the red light appeared. At the pedestrian crossing the sign of a green man lit up. The people who were waiting began to cross the road, stepping on the white stripes painted on the black surface of the asphalt, there is nothing less like a zebra, however, that is what it is called.
An editor might have fixed that fourth sentence as follows:
The people who were waiting began to cross the road, stepping on the white stripes painted on the black surface of the asphalt. There is nothing less like a zebra; however, that is what it is called.
OK, but in Saramago’s universe, wherever one observation leads directly to another, a comma rather than a period intervenes. As the novel progresses, this associative logic becomes the new normal. (It’s a little more complicated than that—for example, there are no quotation marks, and speakers are introduced midsentence with nothing more than a comma and an initial capital.)
This absence of the usual signposts—and especially the lack of periods that might tell us when one sentence has ended and another begun—is disorienting. But in this novel, in which an unnamed city experiences an epidemic of blindness, and once-familiar surroundings must be relearned, Saramago’s style makes sense.‡
Again, the key to making any of this work is consistency. Always be able to cite a reason for any creative choice, and work to make it seem effortless. If readers understand what an author is up to and feel invited to follow along, then you will know that you’ve succeeded.
* To splice (not to be confused with slice) is to combine or unite; it also has a slangy sense denoting marriage.
† But: “Some grammarians distinguish between a ‘run-on sentence’ (or ‘fused sentence’) [no punctuation] and a ‘comma splice’ (or ‘run-together sentence’).” See Garner’s Modern English Usage, 4th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 803. In practice, however, comma splices are often classed along with fused sentences as run-ons.
‡ Or at least it made sense to me, years ago, when I last read the book. Saramago’s comma splices aren’t for everyone.
Fiction+ posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.
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Russell Harper is editor of The Chicago Manual of Style Online Q&A and was the principal reviser of the last two editions of The Chicago Manual of Style. He also contributed to the revisions of the last two editions of Kate L. Turabian’s A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations.
The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition