13 October 2011

The importance of understanding comma splices

When, in the course of going over a Writing section with a student, I mention the term “comma splice, I am almost inevitably met with something between a groan and an eye-roll. I can almost see a bubble with the words, “ok, enough already, will she please stop going on about the stupid comma-thingies already?” floating above their heads.

Unfortunately, though, it’s a point I feel compelled to belabor. Of all the grammatical concepts tested on the SAT, this is by far one of the most important.

I’m the first to admit that there are plenty of grammar rules tested on the SAT that you can get away with fudging in real life: if you use most rather than more when comparing only two things, there’s a pretty good chance no one’s going to call you on it.

Likewise, if you use a collective noun (team, jury, agency, university, organization, etc.) with a plural verb or pronoun, it’s highly unlikely that anyone will care — or probably even notice, for that matter. The College Board’s insistence that collective nouns be considered immutably singular is one of its quirks.

Not so for comma splices. In my experience, people who can’t always recognize when a comma is being used to separate two complete sentences tend to demonstrate the same problem in their own writing. And usually that indicates a larger problem: they don’t really know how to recognize a sentence.

Now, call me stodgy and old fashioned, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect that high school students know what does and does not constitute a sentence by the time they graduate. Not be able to define it in grammatical terms or discourse about it at length, but simply to recognize when something is a complete, stand-alone statement.

Why? Well, in practical terms, let’s just say that you’ve probably been taking it more or less for granted that you don’t have to work terribly hard to follow my argument here. It’s pretty clear where the divisions between thoughts are.

But what if I were to write like this?

I dislike being the bearer of bad news but when people out there in the real world (employers) see writing (resumes and cover letters) that contains flagrant grammatical errors they won’t be particularly eager to hire you, as a matter of fact they probably won’t even be terribly eager to give you an interview. Surveys have shown that the number one skill employers think is missing from their new hires is: the ability to write well, this is particularly true for people with degrees in fields like business. If you’re lucky enough to get hired by company and can’t even write memos clearly you’re not going to win yourself any points, you’re also definitely not going to be first in line for a promotion.

Ok, so I threw in a few extra mistakes, but I think I’ve made my point. Reading writing that contains a lot of comma splices requires effort — it’s certainly comprehensible, but it’s also tiring and annoying to have to constantly figure out where one thought stops and the next starts. In the end, it has nothing to do with having to write about The Great Gatsby or The Declaration of Independence, and everything to do with making yourself understood.

Leave a Reply