Tuesday, July 14, 2009

To Splice or Not to Splice

I recently edited a manuscript that was rife with sentences combined with the word “then.” Like this one: She pulled the lever, allowing the big steel blades to catch the wind. At first nothing came then finally a small trickle of water splashed into the trough.

My red pencil itches to add a comma. It’s two separate actions. The “and” seems to be understood and to me is redundant. At first nothing came, and then finally a small trickle of water splashed into the trough. If you use “and,” do you even need “then?” But in this case, “and” just doesn’t say the same thing.

According to grammar gurus, this is called a “comma splice” and is supposedly a no-no. As one grammarian put it, “It feels so right. It flows so well. It looks so pretty. But technically, it’s as wrong as wearing wooly socks with strappy summer sandals.”

This same source reminds us of an acronym to remember what a coordinating conjunction is: FANBOYS: For-And-Nor-But-Or-Yet-So. But, she says, be careful of the words then and now; neither is a coordinating conjunction,

And regarding the use of a comma with "then," the Gregg Reference Manual states:
"When hence, then, thus, so, or yet appears at the beginning of an independent clause, the comma following is omitted unless the connective requires special emphasis or a nonessential element occurs at that point."


Melt the butter over high heat; then add the egg.
Melt the butter over high heat; then, when the foam begins to subside, add the egg.

But, to me, it’s not so cut and dried. “The old dog awoke at the sound of his master’s voice, lifted his head then stood up, and wagged his tail.” The phrase just seems all run together. I know the sentence can be reworded to solve the problem. But, since it’s fiction, can we take a little liberty now and again, then add a comma?

What say you, fellow editors?


A native Montanan, Heidi Thomas now lives in Northwest Washington. She has just had her first novel published, Cowgirl Dreams, based on her grandmother. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing and is a member of Northwest Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing and edits, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series, and blogs.


  1. English is very malleable, isn't it? I'd use the comma. Voice in fiction seems to allow for, even demand, certain irregulariteis the Grammar Police would cite us for!

  2. Oh, man. I'm so bad at this stuff. I'm glad I found this blog, though!

  3. Ouch, this post made my head hurt. So glad there are editors out there for me to hire!

  4. If the importance attached to all these minor details doesn't drive those of us who love to write absolutely nuts, I don't know what will. It takes all the joy out of writing if you have to obey all these ridiculous rules.

    Maybe it's due to my age but my mind cringes at this stuff anymore. It seems so petty. I appreciate rules but they can get out of line.

    Sorry, but I'm not as sharp as I used to be and this stuff is becoming mind-boggling. That's probably why I love my blog and can't motivate myself to go outside its boundaries with my words.

    Listen to me; I'm indeed getting old and crotchety!

  5. Oh, boy. I think I need to do some more reading in my grammar books.

    Lynnette Labelle

  6. I hired a comma crazy editor once, she, liked, commas, way, too, much!

    I try to be careful with "then", but I'm not so sure I don't fall short now and then.

  7. Trying to remember what I can about comma splices without getting out of my chair.

    A comma slice comes under the heading of "run-on sentence." There are a couple kinds of run-on sentences as I recall, but I think a comma splice comes into being when a comma tries to create two clauses where two clauses don't exist.

    A comma alone isn't strong enough to be used between two clauses, but should only be used between a clause and a phrase.

    Let me back up.

    A clause has the same weight as a sentence in that it contains a subject and a verb and is a complete thought. A sentence is a clause with a period at the end. One complete thought. It can stand on its own.

    Two clauses create a compound sentence. Both sides of the punctuation are complete and each could stand on its own, but the writer of the sentence has decided she wants a softer connection than a period.

    A period is a hard connection.

    If there is a strong divide between one complete thought and the next complete thought, it requires period or punctuation equal to a period.

    And if the writer decides he wants a softer divide, he turns to colons, semi-colons, and commas mated with conjunctions, one of the FANBOY set, "but" and "and" the most commonly used.

    A phrase is not a complete thought, missing either subject, verb, or both depending on what kind of phrase it is. A phrase cannot stand on its own. It needs the rest of the thought to be considered a clause or a sentence.

    There are exceptions to this rule. In some progressive and/or experimental fiction, incomplete ideas are acceptable. Rhythm and pacing can be more important to a writer than following certain rules.

    Grammar exists for the sake of clarity. If I break a rule, I ask myself will the reader still understand what I am saying? If the answer is "YES," then I go for it. If it's "NO," I refer back to the rules.

    "Then" is a tricky mother. I try not to use it at all, but when I do I depend on sentence length and clarity of action to decide.

  8. I'll admit that I like to use the comma and then "then" in my work. I have seen it a lot in mysteries and suspense and the style seems to add to the fast pacing.

    I have had editors at different publishers edit my work differently. Some want to add the "and" while others don't. We usually compromise. :-)

    It appears that some of the comments beg the question as to whether we bend grammar rules for fiction or not. I've seen lots of bending over the years, and I think if the story is strong enough we can get by with a little more bending. If the story isn't very strong, the grammar mistakes can give an acquisitions editor a good excuse to pass and not have to tell the author the story stinks.

  9. So would you agree:

    We can break the rules, but we need to know the rules first, then break them consciously for a good reason.

    Sometimes it's okay to add a comma to a sentence for clarity, even if the comma is not grammatically required.

    At least in fiction, "and then" looks silly when "then" serves the purpose by itself.

  10. "The old dog awoke at the sound of his master’s voice, lifted his head then stood up, and wagged his tail."

    I would come firmly down on the side of the comma over then.

    The old dog awoke at the sound of his master's voice; lifted his head, stood up and wagged his tail.

    But that, I think, comes down to writing voice more than any formal rule.

  11. "The old dog awoke at the sound of his master’s voice, lifted his head then stood up, and wagged his tail."

    I'd punctuate that one like this: "The old dog awoke at the sound of his master's voice, lifted his head, then stood up and wagged his tail."

    Although I agree with notenoughwords that it is a matter of style and not an adherence to a rule.

  12. I dislike the word "then" when it is overused like this. There are better ways to write a sentence than to use "then". But on the comma question - it is actually a semi-colon that is required (if anything) because the "and" is missing. Simpler to go with no punctuation.

  13. I'm confused about whether you want to put a comma before or after THEN. But I don't think it much matters. I try to follow grammar rules (partly because I love grammar), but my overarching rule is always: Do what makes the sentence easiest to understand. Sometimes, a comma helps, whether it's a splice or not.

  14. Great comments, everyone. Thanks for chiming in! I think I'll continue to bend the rules now and then!

  15. I agree about bending the rules if the resulting sentence makes sense. Clarity must be the primary consideration in this case. The comma splice (a.k.a. run-on sentence) can be avoided by having a word or phrase rather than an independent clause follow "then," as noted by Maryann. (In her example, "then" acts almost as a conjunction, but it relates sequential order, which the conjunction does not. Isn't grammar fun?


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