A discussion in which several friends are taking part over on Facebook inspired me to revive and repost this seven-year-old rumination on comma splices and more. It’s from my now-mothballed “dr. shill” blog (Oct. 22, 2010).
On a beautiful fall day recently, my colleague Dr. Rhonda Sprague came to observe my teaching. From our third-floor lab, one could still see a good deal of flaming red and yellow foliage along Briggs Street as it ran to a dead end just outside our class.
As I reviewed the concepts behind identifying and avoiding comma splices, I mentioned to my students that comma splices increasingly creep into newspaper writing, especially at smaller newspapers and in quoted material. Dr. Sprague startled me by raising her hand and asking whether they’re acceptable in novels, as she has noticed many during her own reading.
I tried to keep my response short because I suspected my students, while doubtless fascinated by my ramblings about proper style, were ready to move on to other things. Still, we (meaning we professors, talking at the students) explored other aspects of comma splices a few minutes more.
Although they are acceptable in some languages and compulsory in others, comma splices are generally considered errors in English. — Wikipedia (link at top of post)
I related my discovery of a splice only recently in a New York Times obituary on Alex the brainy parrot, despite having used the piece in six previous semesters. We explored how this splice, while technically incorrect, may have been an accurate reflection of how a parrot actually talks, with a mere pause (the comma) between independent clauses instead of the full stop (a period) that human speech normally would use. I offered two bonus points to the person who could find the splice later in the class.
We had to leave comma splices behind, because we needed to review comma use relative to essential and nonessential clauses, then take on the day’s main topic: obituaries. (Here is where you can insert your own joke about my course offerings that day.)
Dr. Sprague’s action was startling because I’ve realized punctuation chat isn’t the most energizing of classroom topics. Consequently, I’ve given up on most actual discussion and settled for short, lecture-like presentations before other activities, focusing on what I belive are few critical grammar and other writing issues for my journalism classes. I try to focus on the best places for most students to start on, return to, or continue along the path of lifelong improvement of their writing.
I also know, however, that the mere mention of the concepts behind punctuation will drive many students back to their lab computers, the view out the window, or their own thoughts. Writing advice is best kept to short bursts.
Fortunately, a good news story can always be used to change the pace, even when I secretly include lessons about writing. The Alex obituary is great for that, because it tugs at the heartstrings while raising important scientific questions: Did Alex really feel? Did Alex understand? Was he like us? Are we like Alex because much of our behavior and communication is mimicry rather than the result of forethought?
We say our ability to communicate is what sets us apart from other animals. It seems at times that professorial meta-communication — our talk about writing, our attention to comma splices — is what sets off most faculty from most students. That doesn’t mean we’re a more highly developed species. In fact, there are strong arguments that there’s something quite odd about us, especially when our high-toned delivery becomes incomprehensible to humans of even above-average intelligence. I often joke to my students that they should learn about grammar, but not be like me.
I see plenty of evidence that many listen to me. They actually learn how to identify comma splices and go on to live quite normal and productive lives, maybe even later funding our endowed scholarships. Despite most students’ lack of passion for grammar, they have far more in common with me than not. For instance, even I am occasionally ready for class to end.
It did. We all went out into the autumn sunshine. Nobody found the comma splice, but today is still another beautiful day.