Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Commas – fused sentences

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full stop

Image by Leo Reynolds via Flickr

My gripe today is that people often use commas when a full stop is required. Here’s part of a letter I received from a leading company of mortgage advisors:

I am pleased to enclose your original policy document from Legal & General, you should keep this in a safe place.

See how that poor little comma placed after ‘Legal & General’ is groaning under the strain of doing the work of a full stop? To be technical, using a comma when a full stop is required results in what is known as a ‘fused sentence’, or in the US as a ‘comma splice’. To be non-technical, it’s just horrible to read. This is better:

I am pleased to enclose your original policy document from Legal & General. You should keep this in a safe place.

If you want to be dead sophisticated you could use a semicolon instead of the full stop. Find out more about how to use the semicolon.

If you want to do some editing, this is also better than the ‘fused’ version:

I am pleased to enclose your original policy document from Legal & General which you should keep in a safe place.

More fused sentences

I don’t know whether to wear the red dress or the green suit, my problem is that the red dress isn’t back from the dry cleaners yet.

You can see that the comma after ‘green suit’ simply isn’t strong enough there. The result is a long, amorphous sprawl of words. The comma ‘fuses’ the string of words together into a ‘sentence’, but only under protest. The comma needs to be a full stop or, if you’re feeling daring, a semicolon:

I don’t know whether to wear the red dress or the green suit; my problem is that the red dress isn’t back from the dry cleaners yet.

(I was feeling daring.)

Here are some more examples of fused sentences, where the comma isn’t strong enough to do the work being asked of it:

The removal men are arriving at about midday, we need to contact the electricity company to give them a final meter reading.

He came into the room carelessly smoking a cigarette, the butler hurried over with an ashtray.

We have looked into the matter thoroughly, our findings are that further work will be required over the next two weeks.

Find out why commas are important

Making a list using commas

Commas — some easy stuff to remember

Use commas to add extra information to sentences

More user-friendly information about punctuation

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