Burgess Laughlin

Error in joining independent clauses

3 posts in this topic

[Here I am trying to explain a point in grammar to novice writers. I am confident of the general grammar rule -- "Don't use a comma to join independent clauses." -- but less sure of why breaking the rule is improper. I welcome all comments suitable to novices. Also, I do not want to get bogged down in exceptions. The point here is the general rule.]

1. Mark Twain's stories are entertaining, there are a lot of them.

The sentence above has two clauses:

2. Mark Twain's stories are entertaining ...

3. ... there are a lot of them.

Each clause is independent (a complete thought by itself). That means each clause could correctly stand by itself as a sentence, with a period at the end.

Joining independent clauses in one sentence is okay, but what joins them should show the reader the relationship between them. A comma does not properly do that. Why? Because a comma often signals subordination in clauses -- that is, one clause is dependent on the other. (A comma can also separate a series of three or more things: "I like red, white, and blue.")

The following sentences contain two independent clauses, but they are joined properly:

4. Mark Twain's stories are entertaining; there are a lot of them.

5. Mark Twain's stories are entertaining, and there are a lot of them.

In sentence 4, the semicolon shows a major break; it shows the two clauses are independent but related closely enough that the writer wants to put them close together. In sentence 5, the conjunction "and" shows that, here, the two clauses are just about equal in weight as well as independent.

The writer could also properly write two independent sentences:

6. Mark Twain's stories are entertaining. There are a lot of them.

This approach is grammatically correct, but the sentences may be too short to make reading them flow well. But flow is a matter of style, not of grammar. Sometimes short sentences are the right stylistic choice and sometimes not, depending on the writer's purpose at that point in his writing.

So, in summary, usually there are three proper ways to write independent clauses:

- As separate sentences, one following the other.

- In one sentence, as independent clauses connected by a semicolon, to show a major break.

- In one sentence, as independent clauses connected by a conjunction (which should be preceded by a comma to show that the conjunction is not part of the previous clause).

Using a comma to join independent clauses is generally wrong because it creates confusion. The reason is that a comma usually signals either subordination (dependence) or a series of three or more things. But independent clauses are equal in weight, rather than one subordinate to (dependent on) the other.

Generally, avoid using a comma to separate independent clauses.

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Thank you for posting this Burgess. I have always had a major problem with using too much commas in my writing. I knew that it was wrong grammatically and it had been bothering me for quite a long time but I never had the time to research it.

Now I know the correct principles to use. :D

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[... I welcome all comments suitable to novices. Also, I do not want to get bogged down in exceptions. The point here is the general rule.]

I hope I may be forgiven for quoting just one exception:

"I came, I saw, I conquered."

--Julius Caesar

Yes, novices should concentrate on learning and understanding the rules. Just keep in back of your mind that, once you've mastered the basics, there will be rare occasions on which violating one of the rules will result in even more effective language!

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