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Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Big 3: Comma Splices, Fragments, and Run-Ons

The number 3.

I was making photocopies one morning a couple of years ago and noticed that another professor had left copies in the machine.  Being the nosy novice teacher that I was, I immediately appropriated them and was delighted to find that they were leftover Composition II syllabi.  If there’s anything I loved (and still do!), it’s to see how others were teaching the same course.  What I saw turned my blood cold.

“any essay that contains one comma splice, fragment, or run on sentence will automatically receive a zero” 

That morning I learned two things.  The first was I was being far too lenient with my own students to prepare them for the rigor of the classes they had yet to face.  The second was there are some grammar errors that simply have no place in college writing. 

Numerous online resources already exist that define, explain, and illustrate what a comma splice, fragment, and run-on sentence are.  Googling “run-on sentence” alone will give you over 9 million results! Since there is such a wealth of information already available for these errors, I’ll only briefly explain and illustrate each type.  Afterwards, I’ll provide a list of online resources I personally like that I’ve added to over the years.

Sentence Fragments

I start with sentence fragments because it is (in my very humble opinion) the most important of the three error types to overcome.  If you can’t write a complete sentence, you really are at square number one.  At least comma splices and run-on sentences combine complete sentences, and so earn more respect in my eyes as error types.

Sentence fragments are just that – fragments of a sentence.  Just as the pieces of a puzzle have only a small part of the puzzle image on each, so does a sentence fragment have only a small part of what is needed to make an entire sentence. The following phrases are examples of the various kinds of sentence fragments that exist:

"Because I can."
"The nun who was small."
"Eating here."

Sentence fragments can be identified easily because they cannot stand alone if uttered or written in isolation.  For example, if a complete stranger came up to you at a bus stop and said “Her flowing red hair,” you would have absolutely no idea what s/he was talking about.  Any utterance that makes you say “…Whaaat?” or leaves you waiting for more is probably a sentence fragment.

Comma Splices

Next on the list of writing errors to avoid at all costs is the comma splice.  When you splice two things together, you are joining them.  Electricians do it all the time when they take two exposed wires and splice them together to form a connection.  A comma splice, then, joins two complete sentences together with a comma.

The following are some examples of comma splices:

"I like chihuahuas, they are so cute and small."
"Being at school is a drag, I wish I were home."
"The oil spill was horrible, I hope too many dolphins don't die."

Notice that there is a complete sentence before and after each comma.  Comma splices are quite a common mistake, especially for people whose first language is not English.  As common a mistake as it is, it’s a good thing that it’s also very easy to fix.  Every time you see a comma splice, change the comma to a period and you’ve fixed the sentence.  There are other ways to remedy the error, of course, but the substitution method is by far the easiest.

Run-On Sentences

Also called “fused sentences,” run-on sentences are just comma splices without the commas.  Just as comma splices join two complete sentences, run-on sentences also join two (or more) complete sentences.  Because there is nothing at the juncture, the sentences are said to “run-on” into one another. 

Let’s look at the previous examples for comma splices and change them into run-on sentences instead:

"I like chihuahuas they are so cute and small."
"Being at school is a drag I wish I were home."
"The oil spill was horrible I hope too many dolphins don't die."

Just like comma splices, run-on sentences are relatively easy to fix! Just add a period in between the sentences and, voil√†, you’re done!  There are other solutions (for example, FANBOYS, to name one well-known trick to fixing fused sentences), but the resources I will point you to cover each solution in wonderful detail already.

Online Resources

  • Grammar Bytes!

    I simply adore this website and send ALL of my students, both those in college and those in high school, to it. Its slogan is "Grammar Instruction with Attitude" and it definitely lives up to it! It covers not only "The Big 3" writing errors, but many other grammar issues like parrallelism, dangling modifiers, and pronoun agreement (just to name a few). The graphics and examples on the site are funny, snarky, and full of attitude - the kind that you don't find in boring grammar handbooks.

  • The Guide to Grammar and Writing

    Another site that I regularly recommend to students, The Guide to Grammar and Writing has detailed handouts and interactive quizzes for all types of grammar needs, not just "The Big 3." This is another site that is worth bookmarking and returning to again and again for grammar help.

  • Big Dog's Grammar

    Another fully interactive site, Big Dog offers quizzes and extensive guides for all major grammar errors AND it does so in a slap-happy, light-hearted way! I love the laid-back attitude of the website and the quality of the information - it's a combination that can't be beat!

These three resources are, in my opinion, the best of the free online grammar websites you can find online. There are other sites that offer grammar help but the in-your-face advertising and superficial quality of their examples and explanations kept them from making my list. Feel free to comment on this post and let me know if there are any grammar sites I missed that you feel deserve to be up here!


Photo credit: Hub


Your students must be blessed. Great post! Thank you!

first of all, thank you for this simple and vivid explanation ;however, we as foriegne student of english ,we find it difficult to cope with such problems,Let me explaine more my point :When i read the explanation i really understand every point ,but when i practice i find more difficulties .Would you please explaine why this occur to non-native speakers of english.I will be greatfull if you would like to explain,

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