Wordwatch Towers

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

Commas – fused sentences

with 19 comments

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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19 Responses

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  1. A serious, widespread problem these days. The American term for fused sentence is comma splice. As you note, so many splices could be readily fixed with a semi–one of the more under-used bits of punctuation.

    As long as I’m typing (sorry for going a tad off-topic), it bothers me to see em-dashes used where a colon would be better. I say, if you’re interrupting a thought, use an em-dash; if you’re pointing to a conclusion or answering an implied or rhetorical question, use a colon. In casual writing, though, I’m fond of dashes to break up thoughts or phrases–as I see you doing, as well, on this blog. 🙂

    Michael Farrell

    10/01/2010 at 2:09 am

    • Yes — I am a bit of an em-dash fiend, especially when writing in a casual/informal style. (And, of course, the American genius, Emily Dickinson, relied on this device for her brilliant poetry).

      However, my point would be that it’s good to know how to avoid dashes with the judicious use of a semicolon (or colon) — then you can choose which to use instead of falling back on the dash due to lack of confidence (instead of laziness, as in my case, or genius, as in Emily’s case). I must provide a link to the semicolon post on this page — another thing I must thank you for reminding me to do!

      Deborah

      10/01/2010 at 9:11 am

      • PS — the link is there already! I’m now going to boil my head.
        PPS — I have added ‘comma splice’ to the tag list. Thanks for that!

        Deborah

        10/01/2010 at 9:14 am

  2. I also note that Word Press seems to turn my typed em-dashes into hyphens. I may need to leave a space around the dashes here….

    Deborah, do you have a page for suggested grammar topics? One I’d like to see you address is the use or omission of articles in US vs. UK writing: “going to hospital” vs. “going to the hospital.” Is there a rule in British English on when an article isn’t needed, or is it just an idiom? (From your perspective, I guess you’d say, Is there a rule why Americans add unneeded articles?)

    On my silly FB grammar group, a Canadian friend just posted a photo showing misguided grammar tyranny: an American noted “fail” on a public-service poster of an ambulance going “to hospital.”

    Michael Farrell

    10/01/2010 at 5:44 pm

    • Hi, Michael — you could use the ‘Write or wrong?’ page for asking any questions that might crop up. As for your query regarding ‘to hospital’ or ‘to the hospital’ — I’ve never come across this as being an issue before. It’s a really interesting question and I am going to look into it. Watch this space!

      Deborah

      10/01/2010 at 6:02 pm

  3. Thank you — I will (<<– em-dash test). That's what I figured: you rarely see "to the hospital" in the UK; that's all we see here.

    Here's a funny comma splice from a popular gossip blog (you know I relish and collect such things):
    "I don't care what anyone says, certain things mark you as low class, tattoos and bad grammar are two of them."

    Michael Farrell

    10/01/2010 at 9:08 pm

    • That’s a brilliant example of a comma splice (just thought I’d show how transatlantic I am there). Thanks for sharing that. The hospital thing is bugging me and I am going to investigate over the next couple of days.

      Deborah

      11/01/2010 at 1:09 am

      • Hi, Michael — I have been researching ‘to hospital’ or ‘to the hospital’. There seem to be two separate circumstances where the definite article (the word ‘the’)is omitted.

        Firstly, it is a common journalistic device in written media, for example:

        “Film star, Tom Cruise, gave several interviews yesterday”

        “World’s thinnest man fell through grating”

        If speaking, the journalist would, of course, say “The film star…” and “The world’s…”.

        Secondly, although I have not come across this distinction before (so thanks for that), it seems as if it is an accepted UK construction to say/write, for example:

        “He is going to prison”
        “She is going to hospital”
        “I am going to town”

        … but this would not be common usage in the US?

        Any other thoughts/opinions on this are welcome. As I say, the UK/US difference regarding this is a new one on me.

        Deborah

        12/01/2010 at 11:25 am

  4. In the US, “the” with prison and hospital, no “the” with town in that sentence, unless you were specifying one of several possible destinations (the town, the beach, or the farm). “Going to town” to us suggests a country bumpkin off to the big city to sell eggs; you might also use it semi-humorously to describe someone dressing up for a big night out (but a night “on the town”).

    My Commonwealth friend suggested no article is needed because it’s a generic physical description–not “the UCLA Hospital” but any hospital with medical services to offer (as if it were “a hospital”). In the US, generic or not, we’d always include “the.”

    As I promised, I’ll look into this more meself. The Internet has an answer!

    Michael Farrell

    12/01/2010 at 3:59 pm

    • I would also say ‘I am going up town’ when speaking about the main shopping area in the town centre of my home town. But I don’t know how localised that is. I have moved away, and now only use that phrase when back there. Yes, I was thinking about the generic thing, but I don’t think it covers it really. We would say ‘She’s gone to prison’ even if we knew the specific prison concerned. Interesting.

      Deborah

      12/01/2010 at 4:06 pm

  5. “She’s gone to prison” sounds terribly British to me. We’d use the simpler “she’s in [or ‘off to’?] prison.” (Actually, Amurkins often use “jail”–no, not “gaol”–indiscriminately whether it’s prison or jail.)

    Doesn’t the UK also say “in chokey” (I only know this because of the number of times Pete Doherty and Amy Winehouse’s ex end up in chokey)? We don’t use the slang “chokey,” but when a US gossip blog comments on the latest Brit celeb in trouble, the blog will modify the report to say “in the chokey.”

    Michael Farrell

    12/01/2010 at 4:46 pm

    • Oh yes — we’d say ‘she’s in prison’ too. Jail — not so much. ‘In chokey’ sounds like one of the phrases that might by used by an ‘English’ character in an American sitcom — or perhaps I don’t mix in the right circles…

      Deborah

      12/01/2010 at 4:54 pm

  6. hahaha. Sounds like you might mix IN the right circles… No, “in chokey” seems to be used by the low-brow UK press (now I’ve probably insulted someone, haven’t I?).

    Michael Farrell

    12/01/2010 at 5:09 pm

    • Hmmm — I just looked up ‘chokey’ in my trusty Oxford Dictionary of English. It describes the word as British slang — but ‘dated’. I just did a search on the Sun’s (UK ‘red top’) newspaper site, but I could only find one example (from December last year) which is a quote from an ‘insider’ about ‘doing chokey’.

      How did we get from fused sentences to chokey? ‘Sentences’ is a link I suppose…

      Deborah

      12/01/2010 at 5:26 pm

  7. “Dated” I am! Here’s a ref from NME on 7/8/07: “Was this the last time we’d see Pete [Doherty] without a stripy jumpsuit on? Do they let you wear trilbies in chokey?”

    Here’s one from HecklerSpray.com (motto: “Gossip for Grownups”!) on Dec. 4, 2006: “Well, at least that’s good news for Kate Moss, since she won’t have to wait until Pete Doherty gets out of chokey before she can become the wife of a jumped-up tuneless busker now.” (Ouch!!)

    It’s all English and all interconnected. But sorry if I’ve strayed too much off-topic. *back to def article research*

    Michael Farrell

    12/01/2010 at 5:40 pm

    • I don’t mind you straying off topic! It’s all interesting stuff.

      Deborah

      12/01/2010 at 5:44 pm

  8. Here’s a depressingly bad fused sentence, from Yahoo Sports (which must not have its “A” writers covering the Olympics…): “A good Opening Ceremony doesn’t need a massive budget or thousands of performers, it needs to entertainingly reflect the culture of the host country in a manner that’s easily relatable to the three billion people watching on television.”

    The “relatable” is also ugly. Yahoo could say instead: “reflect the culture of the host country so that the three billion people watching on television can easily grasp it.”

    Michael Farrell

    12/02/2010 at 3:33 pm

    • I’m sorry, what did you say? My mind started wandering after ‘entertainingly reflect’. I think the journo needs to think about how they can ‘entertainingly reflect’ what exactly it is they are trying to say. Thanks for this excellent example of a fused sentence (among other sins). Er — does ‘opening ceremony’ need to be capitalised?

      Deborah

      13/02/2010 at 4:10 pm

      • True! “Opening Ceremony” hung me up, too, but it’s mildly defensible. I have noticed already that, under deadline pressures and the influence of strong local brew, some of the posts from the Olympics have been really sloppy.

        Michael Farrell

        13/02/2010 at 4:48 pm


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