Punctuation

The SBC GMAT Files

Punctuation: When Commas Are Splicing Up Your Chances!

“Comma Splice” – it’s a term that might feature in a mockumentary as the name of a band created by a nerdy-hip cohort of high-school seniors.

What is a comma splice, and why should we care?

Basically, a comma splice is a grammatical no-no that occurs when there’s an incorrect break (“splice”) in a sentence that uses a comma where we would expect a proper conjunction. In other words, a comma splice wrongly places a comma between two independent clauses. The reason this is wrong is that two independent clauses should have a conjunction or connector to help them hang together. A comma just won’t cut it.

Here’s an example:

MBA hopefuls face a double challenge in applying to graduate school, they are often required to present substantial work experience, in addition to high GMAT scores.

QUESTION: What’s wrong with the above “sentence”? Which comma is the offending comma splice?

ANSWER: The problem is that the sentence is not one sentence: it is two independent sentences or clauses. The offending comma splice is the first comma in the sentence  [after the words ‘graduate school’] .

The clause up to the first comma has its own independent subject (MBA hopefuls) and verb (face); the second clause [after the first comma] also has an independent subject (they) and verb (are required). But these two independent clauses are separated only by a comma, rather than by a period, or a conjunction, such as “because.” The fact that they are independent clauses is important: if one clause were dependent on the other, the comma would be just fine.

Here are a couple of different ways in which the above sentence could be corrected:

MBA hopefuls face a double challenge in applying to graduate school, because they are often required to present substantial work experience, in addition to high GMAT scores.
OR:
Since they are often required to present substantial work experience in addition to high GMAT scores, MBA hopefuls face a double challenge in applying to graduate school.
OR:
MBA hopefuls face a double challenge in applying to graduate school: they are often required to present substantial work experience, in addition to high GMAT scores.

As you can see, there is more than one way to fix a comma splice. In the first two cases, we subordinated one clause to another, by adding a reason conjunction (because, since). In the third case, we use a different punctuation mark – a colon – to create the logical conjunction between the two independent clauses.

The latter case may seem like an odd solution. Why should a colon be better than a comma? The answer is: it just is. This is a convention of English language. The colon creates a logical relation between the first clause and the second, where the second clause becomes an explanation of the first.

The GMAT has some devious ways of placing comma splices in Sentence Correction questions, so that they are barely noticeable. We will look at a few examples in a future post.

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