Comma splice errors: An object lesson

 

We writing and grammar geeks can hardly contain ourselves as two fabulously nerdy events collide. Today, National Grammar Day meets Words Matter Week.

To celebrate this momentous occasion, I’d like to bring you a fun little way to teach your students to find and fix comma splices.

I know. Your enthusiasm—like mine—knows no bounds.

The Problem with Comma Splices

When a comma joins two independent clauses or sentences, it’s called a comma splice. 

Example 1: J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Hobbit, he also wrote The Lord of the Rings.
Example 2: The bridge collapsed into the river, fortunately no one was injured.
Example 3: Maya arrived late, her car wouldn’t start.

These three examples demonstrate the typical comma splice. Since it’s one of the most common grammar errors, I encourage you to devote time to helping your students identify and learn to fix comma splices in their own writing.

Suzanne Cherry, director of the Swamp Fox Writing Project (South Carolina), finds that relating the concepts of punctuation and grammar to real-world experiences—in this example, through an intriguing demonstration involving electrical tape—helps students recognize and correct their errors successfully.

Cherry uses a unique object lesson to explain the comma splice error to her students. Showing the class two pieces of wire, each with the last inch exposed, she says: “We need to join these pieces of wire together right now if we are to be able to watch our favorite TV show. What can we do? We could use some tape, but that would probably be a mistake as the puppy could easily eat through the connection. By splicing the wires in this way, we are creating a fire hazard.”

Turning Wires into Sentences

The students usually come up with a better alternative: to use one of those electrical connectors that looks like the cap of a pen.

“Now,” Cherry suggests, “let’s turn those wires into sentences.”

She reminds her students that if they just splice them together with a comma—the equivalent of a piece of tape—it creates a weak connection, or a comma splice error.

The answer is to use the grammatical equivalent of the electrical connector: either a conjunction (and, but, or) or a semicolon. Either option “shows the relationship between the two sentences in a way that the comma—a device for taping clauses together in a slapdash manner—does not.”

[In addition to Cherry's suggestons, I would add that a period also makes an effective repair for a comma splice, as it separates the two independent clauses into distinct sentences.]

Here, our three example comma splices have been repaired:

Example 1: J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Hobbit. He also wrote The Lord of the Rings.
Example 2: The bridge collapsed into the river, but fortunately no one was injured.
Example 3: Maya arrived late; her car wouldn’t start.

“I’ve been teaching writing for many years,” Cherry says. “And I now realize the more able we are to relate the concepts of writing to ‘real world’ experience, the more successful we will be.”

Read more: Keeping the Comma Splice Queen Happy

Source: National Writing Project, 30 Ideas for Teaching Wriing.
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6 comments ↓

#1 JoJo Tabares on 03.04.10 at 5:57 am

I like that example!

#2 Amy on 03.04.10 at 7:31 am

Frankly? I don’t see how that helped at all. And I had to keep rereading her explanation. We have to fix it ‘right’, I would have said we have to fix it ‘correctly’, and ‘quickly’ perhaps if you need it to be ‘now? Is the puppy going to chew through it or is it going to catch fire? I wouldn’t have used the puppy analogy because puppies chew through chair legs, a bit of wire with or without tape… the fire hazard danger makes more sense.
But I understand words better then I understand punctuation.

#3 Kim on 03.04.10 at 10:24 am

Thanks for commenting, Amy. Hope I can clarify a few little things and make it easier for others to understand too.

First, you’re probably just overthinking this. :) It’s simply an analogy to help make an abstract grammar concept more concrete.

Second, Ms. Cherry didn’t just say “right,” she actually said “right now,” which gives a different meaning. “Quickly” would imply that she needs to work rapidly, rather than immediately. I suppose she could have said “right away” or “immediately” instead—or even left off “right now” altogether, but I do think she made the point.

I agree that most analogies break down some way or another. Perhaps Cherry could have chosen a different example other than the chewing puppy, but again, she was just trying to give an illustration the students could relate to.

The whole object lesson was about making a comparison between wires connected weakly (by tape) vs. wires connected firmly (by an electrical connector), and then showing how that relates to sentences connected weakly (by commas) vs. sentences connected firmly (by semicolons or conjunctions).

So sorry if you felt confused, Amy. I still think this illustration could be helpful, especially for visual and kinesthetic learners who need to “see” and “do” in order to remember.

~Kim

#4 Pat on 03.04.10 at 12:04 pm

I’ve known this error in comma usage all my adult life, but I can see that having a name for it can help students and others remember to avoid the error. One would hope.

#5 Sandra on 08.22.14 at 4:06 pm

I love this! Thank you for posting it!

#6 Kim Kautzer on 08.23.14 at 9:17 am

You’re welcome, Sandra. Thanks so much for stopping by!

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