Even if you’re not familiar with the term “comma splice,” you’ve most likely come across them in both classic and modern literature. They may even have pulled you out of a story for a moment, making you think, That doesn’t look quite right.

A comma splice is a common grammatical error that tends to cause small speed bumps in an otherwise smoothly paced story. And when you’ve worked so hard at engaging your reader through characters, plot, and setting, the last thing you want is a persnickety detail unraveling your hard work.

In this article we’ll explain what a comma splice is, along with ways to easily correct comma splices when they slither uninvited into your creative writing.

What is a comma splice?

A comma splice is when two short sentences are incorrectly linked together by a comma. Since a comma splice links two separate ideas into one sentence, it can make it unclear to the reader what the connection is between those two ideas. This makes the sentence read awkwardly and unnaturally.

Here are a few examples of what a comma splice looks like:

  • He just put on the kettle, it’s boiled already.

  • Dress warmly, it’s supposed to rain later.

  • I’m going to Paris, I can’t wait to see the Louvre.

  • I just watched the new release, it’s not what I expected.

Each of these sentences are made up of two small, separate sentences (or clauses) separated by a comma, which makes them a comma splice.

A comma splice occurs only when two independent clauses are linked together this way—these are small sentences that could stand independently, without needing extra information.

To create a really clear and elegant sentence, a comma should only be used to join an independent clause with a dependent clause. (A dependent clause is a sentence fragment that can’t function by itself.) For example, this sentence uses a comma correctly:

  • When he arrives, tell him I had to leave early.

“Tell him I had to leave early” is an independent clause, while “When he arrives” is a dependent clause. You can tell because the first one sounds like it could be a complete sentence by itself, while the second sounds unfinished. In the example above the comma is used correctly, and we haven’t created a comma splice because we didn’t join two independent clauses.

A comma splice is a grammatical error that occurs when two sentences are incorrectly joined by a comma.

Comma splices vs. run-on sentences

Comma splices happen when two independent clauses are joined with a comma. Run-on sentences are closely related, but instead of using a comma to join two independent clauses, they use no punctuation at all. For example:

  • I just watched the new release it’s not what I expected.

In this example, “I just watched the new release” and “It’s not what I expected” are each independent clauses—they can stand on their own as two complete sentences. But, we’ve joined them together, without punctuation. This results in a run-on sentence, which makes the reader feel like one sentence is “running on” right into the next one without pause.

Ways to fix a comma splice

Now that we know what a comma splice is, let’s look at ways you can correct comma splices so that your prose reads smoothly.

1. Use a conjunction

Conjunctions are little words that bridge two sentences together. There are two types of conjunctions: coordinating conjunctions and subordinating conjunctions. Even though the terms may look scary, you’ll probably know which to use instinctually just by looking at what the sentence is trying to say.

A coordinating conjunction takes two independent clauses and links them together to become one sentence. These are words like and, but, yet, so, and so forth. For example:

  • He just put on the kettle, yet it’s boiled already.

A subordinating conjunction is a kind of word or short phrase that not only links two clauses together, but clarifies the relationship between them for the reader. This might be something like because, since, although, unless, etc. For example:

  • Dress warmly, because it’s supposed to rain later.

The second half of the sentence gives new information about the first half, and we’ve fixed our comma splice example.

You’ll notice that by adding a conjunctive word to the comma splice, you’ve turned one of the independent clauses into a dependent clause. “Because it’s supposed to rain later” is no longer a separate sentence; it’s a modification of another sentence. This is how you can tell that the comma splice has been punctuated correctly.

There are seven coordinating conjunctions in writing: And, For, But, Nor, Yet, Or, and So.

2. Use em-dashes

An em-dash looks like a long hyphen (although they’re not quite the same thing!) and accomplishes quite a lot. One thing you can use this type of punctuation mark for is linking two independent clauses together to avoid comma splices. For example:

  • Dress warmly—it’s supposed to rain later.

Like a subordinating conjunction, an em-dash precedes a sentence that contributes new information about the first one.

3. Use semicolons

A semicolon looks like a cross between a comma and a colon, and it’s used to join two independent clauses that share a related idea. It functions like a middle ground between a comma and a period—not quite one long sentence, but not quite two short ones, either. For example:

  • I’m going to Paris; I can’t wait to see the Louvre.

The semicolon creates a pause between the two independent clauses, but shows that they are related to the same thought.

4. Create isolated sentences

Sometimes the best option is to simply cut the comma splice apart and let each half become a sentence of its own. You do this by closing the first independent clause with a period, and then starting the next one with a capital letter, like normal. For example:

  • I just watched the new release. It’s not what I expected.

Now the comma splice has become two separate sentences. Using a period instead of a comma will also speed up the pacing of your story by making your sentences seem shorter and punchier.

How to fix comma splices in your story

The best defense against comma splices is knowing how to recognize them in your writing. Once you know what to look for, you’ll be able to snag them and use one of the easy fixes we looked at above.

The solution you choose for one comma splice might be different than the best solution for another comma splice, depending on what sort of rhythms you’re using in your story and what it needs in that moment. Let’s look at our fixed comma splice examples again:

  • He just put on the kettle, yet it’s boiled already.

  • He just put on the kettle—it’s boiled already.

  • He just put on the kettle; it’s boiled already.

  • He just put on the kettle. It’s boiled already.

  • Dress warmly, because it’s supposed to rain later.

  • Dress warmly—it’s supposed to rain later.

  • Dress warmly; it’s supposed to rain later.

  • Dress warmly. It’s supposed to rain later.

  • I’m going to Paris, and I can’t wait to see the Louvre.

  • I’m going to Paris—I can’t wait to see the Louvre.

  • I’m going to Paris; I can’t wait to see the Louvre.

  • I’m going to Paris. I can’t wait to see the Louvre.

Now that we’ve fixed them, all of these sentences are grammatically correct; however, you can see that some definitely read better than others and may be better suited to different circumstances. When you’re editing your manuscript and see a comma splice, try a few different solutions and see which feels like the best fit for your story.

You can fix a comma splice or run-on sentence with a number of different grammatical tricks.

Are comma splices ever acceptable in writing?

As a writer, proper punctuation should be at the forefront of your editing process. Incorrect grammar can reflect badly on your work and your creative practice as a whole. However, there may be instances in which using a comma splice communicates something important about your story.

Here’s a famous example of comma splices in literature:

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…

Charles Dickens created one of literature’s most famous opening paragraphs by sticking so many comma splices into it that it began to look like a hedgehog. This was a stylistic choice on his part—can you imagine how hard it would be on the eyes if it was slammed full of semicolons, or worse, em-dashes? Using commas to separate each sentence is technically incorrect, but the artful repetition of each phrase lends the opening paragraph a feeling of poetic rhythm.

Sometimes, a comma splice can be useful in creating a natural “stream of consciousness” style narrative in a story. That might not follow conventional grammar, because our thoughts don’t always follow conventional grammar rules. However, it can be difficult to write effectively, and should only be used sparingly—for example, to convey feelings of excitement, anxiety, or fear.

There are rules to writing, but part of what makes writing an art is how writers creatively break those rules. But if you’re going to break the rules of grammar and storytelling, make sure you’ve considered each alternative and consciously chosen to break them because it was the right choice for your story in that moment, and not because you simply didn’t know the difference.

Keep comma splices at bay to clarify your writing

The comma splice is a pesky evil that can arise in the work of even the most experienced writers. When used with intention and precision, they can be used to create effective rhythms in a story; used unintentionally, however, and they stick out and disengage the reader. Make sure you know the rules of the comma splice to keep your writing as sharp as it can be.