I love grammar. I always have. I like how it has rules that are simultaneously strict and bendable, professional and artistic. I like how I can see a comma splice and know to replace it with a semicolon or add a conjunction, and I like how I can see when a comma is being used stylistically. I like how years of writing have taught me how to feel things out and use my knowledge to make a desired sentence structure a correct reality.
But here’s the thing.
Grammar is descriptive, not prescriptive; we base the rules around our reality, and while we need to fix things to make them correct by current standards, sometimes those “current standards” change. Our language structures have drastically transformed over the centuries as dialects and cultural changes impact common speech patterns.
As an English major and HC editor, I read a lot of other people’s writing, and I think one of these changes is happening.
And I don’t like it.
Because comma splices are taking over the semicolon, and I don’t think there’s anything we can do about it.
Now, it could just be that a lot of people don’t know how to use a semicolon. And a lot of people don’t! Comma splices often show up when someone has developed a sentence complex enough to require one, and they just aren’t aware of the right punctuation to use. But based only on observation, I think it might be deeper than that. These sentence structures are becoming more common not only in writing, but in speech.
A phrase like, “I liked the beach, it was fun,” is made up of two independent clauses that need more than a comma to connect them, but because the pause we use when we say that out loud is so short, it sometimes feels like it should be a comma. To me, it jumps out as incorrect because I delved deep into the rules of semicolon usage after reading Jane Eyre, but the average writer doesn’t usually have an obsession with Charlotte Bronte’s grammar habits in the eighth grade.
To most people, a comma splice that is used in this way doesn’t come across as wrong; rather, it appears as a normal comma placement. If a majority of people accept and understand it, is it still grammatically wrong? Am I being picky over nothing? Is language evolving around me? Or is it merely a misunderstanding of punctuation that should be corrected? I feel like I’m encountering it everywhere- does this reflect a change in current standards?
As someone who is used to evaluating the stylistic and strict aspects of grammar, this type of technically-incorrect-but-also-understandable grammar is confusing for me. And while I don’t like it (and will still continue to suggest a punctuation change when I see it), it will be interesting to see how it develops in the future.