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Thursday

Writing Mechanics

Comma Splices, Fuses, and FANBOYS!
By
Vicki McCollum (c)
Just when I think, “I’ve got it!” I punctuate it incorrectly. Usually, it’s because of that dreaded, sneaky, and misleading piece of punctuation—the comma. How can anything so miniscule be so problematic?

What’s the purpose of punctuation, anyway?
Perhaps like me, you have questioned the purpose of punctuation when deep in the process of revising your work in progress (WIP). You may have even asked, “Outside of an occasional comma or period to alert readers to slow down and catch their breath, what’s the point?” It’s a good question really, and one we will tackle in this column.

For a moment, imagine that visitors from a foreign country will stay in your home for the weekend. Naturally, you will be sure to place clean towels, soap, and perhaps new toothbrushes in the bathroom. To avoid confusion, you’ll likely advise them of planned activities and meal times, and even alert them to the alarm system—just in case they decide to take a late night stroll. In the end, you’ll do your best to ensure that your guests enjoy their visit to your home.

Punctuation also helps avoid confusion. Think of punctuation as using “company manners.” With punctuation, your goal is to guide your readers through your literary world; thereby avoiding confusion and misunderstanding.

What are some mistaken beliefs about comma usage?
1. “Pause for breath, use a comma”

Over punctuation typically occurs by the writer taught, “pause for breath, use a comma”. But, writers soon realize that pausing for breath won’t help them meet the challenges they face when developing their writing skills.

Here’s an example of overuse of the comma:

Wrong: Recently, my ninth-grade daughter, shared her English teacher’s advice, about comma placement, “Don’t sweat it, Mom. Just place a comma, where you need to pause, for breath, or break up a long, sentence.”

Right: Recently, my ninth-grade daughter shared her English teacher’s advice about comma placement, “Don’t sweat it, Mom. Just place a comma where you need to pause for breath or break up a long sentence.”

Correct over-punctuation by becoming familiar with some simple punctuation rules, rather than relying on inadequate methods.

2. Run-on (fused) sentences

Run-on sentences occur when two or more complete sentences are fused together without punctuation. Correct run-on sentences using semi-colons, periods, or a comma with FANBOYS.

Wrong: “Old habit of mind is one of the toughest things to get away from in the world it transmits itself like physical form and feature...”

Right: “Old habit of mind is one of the toughest things to get away from in the world. It transmits itself like physical form and feature...” (Mark Twain)

3. Comma splices

Comma splices occur when two complete sentences are linked together, inadequately, with only a comma.

Wrong: “Old habit of mind is one of the toughest things to get away from in the world, it transmits itself like physical form and feature...”

Right: “Old habit of mind is one of the toughest things to get away from in the world; it transmits itself like physical form and feature. . .” (Mark Twain)

Can these common mistakes be easily fixed?
Yes, definitely. There are three ways to correct comma splices and run-on sentences: semi-colons, periods, or by placing a comma before FANBOYS.

FANBOYS is a mnemonic device that stands for the following coordinating conjunctions:

For
And
Nor
But
Or
Yet
So

When using commas with FANBOYS, keep these tips in mind:

1. Use commas before coordinating conjunctions that join two complete thoughts (complete thoughts have a subject and verb).

2. Don’t use a comma before FANBOYS if the second phrase is not a complete thought with a subject and verb.

More tips for using commas

1. Use commas with introductory words or phrases:

“When I’m playful, I use the meridians of longitude and parallels of latitude for a seine, and drag the Atlantic Ocean for whales...” (Mark Twain)

2. Use commas with clauses that begin with although, if, as, in order to, when.

“As I was just telling you, if there was a horse race, you’d find him flush or you’d find him busted at the end of it.” (Twain)

3. Use commas in a series of items or actions:

“He never smiled, he never frowned, he never changed his voice from the quiet, gently-flowing key to which he turned the initial sentence.” (Twain)

4. Use commas in the place of “and” when linking coordinate adjectives:

“...an experienced, industrious, ambitious, and often quite picturesque liar.” (Mark Twain)

For more on the use of commas and other punctuation, pick up a copy of Working with Words, Brooks, et al; Woe Is I, by Patricia T. O’Conner; Handbook for Writers , by Simon & Schuster; The Grammar Bible , by Michael Strumpf; or any good grammar book.


Woe is I, Updated and Expanded Third Edition