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Splice vice.

YOUR GRAMMAR SCHOOL teacher probably called them comma splices. Or maybe you first knew them as run on sentences. Whatever you call them, they're what happens when you splice two independent clauses together with a comma. They're fourth-grade errors, and it's damned embarrassing when they show up in print. But they do, all the time, in dailies and weeklies, big papers and small.

So maybe a brief review is in order. Let's start with this example from my newspaper: "Others are practicing law or launching consulting firms, a few are looking for work." Everything before the comma adds up to an independent clause. It has a subject (others) and a predicate (are practicing). It could stand alone as a complete sentence.

Everything after the comma adds up to yet another independent clause. It also has a subject (few) and a predicate (are looking). It qualifies as a complete sentence, too.

The rule on independent clauses is that you need more than a comma to join them. You can end one clause with a period and begin the next with a capital letter. Or you can join the clauses with one of the six coordinate conjunctions: and, but, or, for, yet, nor. A semicolon works. So does a dash. So do ellipses. The point is that you need something.

Here are more published examples that fell short, along with a variety of possible solutions:

* "Never mind those winter storms, now is the time to think about summer camping, state park officials say:" (Never mind about those winter storms. Now is the time....)

* "Don't ignore a problem, believe the victim." (Don't ignore a problem; believe the victim.)

* "The mountains are for skiers who can't get enough turns, there's so much terrain." (The mountains are for skiers who can't get enough turns--there's so much terrain.)

There is one breed of run-on that's inching its way toward respectability: Traditionally, "so" didn't qualify as a coordinate conjunction, and you couldn't use it to join independent clauses.

We now abuse the rule on "so" shamelessly, and the word seems well on its way to joining the list of coordinate conjunctions. But many purists would argue that the following is technically a run-on: "'All the neighborhoods are starting to work together, so we're not just moving the problem from place to place,' he said." As with any other sort of comma splice, you can avoid the error by breaking the run-on into two sentences. Or you can use a semicolon between the two clauses.

Here's an example of the way it should be done:"The reaction from the Soviets to our proposals yesterday has been positive; so now the goal is to get moving and try to work out these agreements."

Hart is senior editor and writing coach at the Oregonian, Portland, Ore. (1320 S. W. Broadway, Portland, OR 97201; phone 503-221-8229; fax 503-294-5012; e-mail jackhart@news.

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Title Annotation:Writers Workshop; fixing comma splices
Author:Hart, Jack
Publication:Editor & Publisher
Date:Mar 21, 1998
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