I've noticed over the years that three aspects of punctuation are confusing for many ESL/EFL teachers. These involve punctuation errors that are often considered important in the context of freshman composition courses--but really have wider implications for ESL/EFL students who need to be accurate writers. Thus, understanding comma splices, run-on sentences, and fragments is important for those of us who teach ESL/EFL to students who are likely do degree studies in a U.S. college or university.
I'm going to give brief definitions and examples in this section of the lecture. In addition, I will provide links to web-based activities that give you more information about these topics.
Comma Splice Defined
A comma splice is the mis-use of a comma to make a compound sentence. A compound sentence is made of two or more simple sentences that are combined to make a new sentence. The new compound sentence should be created with particular types of connections.
To make a compound sentence, you either
1. combine the two simple sentences by using a comma and one of the coordinating conjunctions
He loves sociology, and he plans to major in that disciplinary area.2. combine the two simple sentences by using a semicolon
He loves sociology; he plans to major in that disciplinary area.A comma splice makes the connection but leaves out the coordinating conjunction:
*He loves sociology, he plans to major in that disciplinary area.That's it. Splice means to "combine." We splice rope--or audiotape--or videotape. And we splice commas--or better, we splice sentences using commas. But we aren't supposed to. A comma splice is a compound sentence with a comma but without a coordinating conjunction.
A common mistake by native speakers as well as ESL/EFL writers is to think that a conjunct (linking word, logical connector, conjunctive adverb) can be used with a comma to tie a sentence together. Such a combination creates a comma splice because the adverb cannot take the place of a coordinating conjunction.
*He loves sociology, however, he plans to major in business administration.By the way, this mistake is very much an American issue. Punctuation is approached in the States on a rule-based basis as fits our society. Rules rather than traditions are the basis for the explanations that we find in U.S. grammar books in the sections on punctuation. You will definitely find more commas splices in materials published in the U.K. and Australia than in the U.S.
Remembering the Coordinating Conjunctions
The purpose of the
FANBOYS mnemonic device is to help teachers and students remember the coordinating
conjunctions. There are just seven of them--definitely a closed class.
The most important of these are the words and, or, and but.
The others have more limited use.
Now let's take a look at the punctuation error that is called a run-on sentence. Years ago, I heard an ESL teacher explain run-on sentences to her class. She had mistakenly thought that run-on was the same as "to talk too much"--to "run-on at the mouth" in the rather unpleasant expression. While I know that some writers do go on and on and on that's not the point of run-on sentence.
Run-on Sentence Defined
A run-on sentence is a compound sentence that has been incorrectly punctuated. There are two types of run-on sentences:
1. One type involves writing that has sentence after sentence presented without end punctuation--without a period at the end of one sentence or a capital letter at the beginning of the next. Sentences just run together. This type of writing tends to be the product of a new writer who hasn't yet learned to separate speaking from writing.
He loves sociology as a discipline however he plans to major in anthropology to the dismay of his mother she prefers geography.2. Remember that the comma splice uses a comma to tie a sentence together--without a coordinating conjunction. This type of run-on sentence does the opposite by using the coordinating conjunction but leaving out the comma.
He loves sociology and he plans to major in that disciplinary area.
While comma splices can seem like something that only we English majors can get very excited about, run-on sentences and sentence fragments are more important areas for all writing teachers to learn about and to find ways to help students move beyond. Both run-on sentences (of the first type) and sentence fragments generally indicate that a student has not yet progressed to an advanced level as a writer of English prose. Thus, they can sometimes be developmental stages that learners go through. Of course, sometimes they are just signs of writers in a hurry who haven't taken the time to edit their products carefully enough. Let's take a look at a definition and some examples of fragment and then look at a sample of student writing that shows the results of fragments for readers.
Sentence Fragment Defined
A fragment is a piece of a sentence used as if it were a complete sentence. Look at the following example to see a typical fragment:
He loves sociology. Because he is fascinated with understanding how people behave in social groups.The 2nd part of this examples is an adverbial clause that is presented as a complete sentence. That's a very common source of fragments. We often talk this way--putting a pause between the main sentence and the clause that gives the reason for something. But we need to learn that we don't write this way in formal written English.
There are times when
fragments are "legal." We use them in headings, for example, and
in lists. And we sometimes use them in formal written English when
we mimic the question-answer style of conversational English. Look
at this sample from the newspaper in Fort Collins, Colorado. Here
the writer asks a question and then answers it with words rather than complete
sentences. (The answer, by the way, turns out to be house cats.)
Fragments in a Sample of Student Writing
As you can see from
what she says about herself, the writer is an international student who
is native speaker of English. Native speakers and NNS speakers can
have trouble with learning to separate talking from writing. You
will see similar patterns in the writing of ESL/EFL students, especially
those who have better spoken English than written English. I suggest
that you copy this sample (highlight it, copy it, and then paste it into
your word processing system) and look through to find the various fragments.
Often they are adverbial clauses that have been punctuated as independent
sentences rather than attached to the independent clause to which they
Please send me your questions and comments at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks.