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Incorrect usage of commas is one of the biggest writing mistakes made by students, according to educator Summer Dittmer. The way we speak often differs from the way we write. Commas may be the biggest culprit of making a run on sentence seem like it could be written correctly. Are you using commas correctly? Watch the video to find out!

About the Writing No-No video series: Ms. Dittmer created a series of videos based on her experiences in helping students and adults learn how to improve their writing skills. These videos provide quick yet valuable lessons on what NOT to do when writing an academic paper.

Also watch the #2a Writing No-No: Punctuation - Difference between colons and semicolons, and the #1 Writing No-No: Never using 1st or 2nd person.

Watch the video (1:59):

WriteCheck No-No #2b: Punctuation - Comma Splice from Turnitin on Vimeo.

Comma Splices:

In the 1st part of Writing No-No #2 I covered semicolons and colons.  Today I’ll cover another big punctuation problem: comma splices. Many of my students have never heard of them, but they use them all the time! So what in the world are they?

A comma splice is basically a run-on. It occurs when two independent clauses are incorrectly connected by a comma. Here’s an example of a run-on:

The coffee shop was packed they were giving away free lattes.

Here’s and example of a comma splice:

The coffee shop was packed, they were giving away free lattes.

Which one is correct? Trick question! Neither of these examples is correctly written. Adding a comma still doesn’t help bring together the two separate thoughts in that sentence.

What is the correct punctuation for that example? Well, you can use a period, like this:

The coffee shop was packed.  They were giving away free lattes.

A semicolon, like this:

The coffee shop was packed; they were giving away free lattes.

Or, you can use a PCS.  No…not the computers…PCS stands for Periods, Coordinating Conjunctions or Semicolons. Remember these 7 coordinating conjunctions: For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet and So

Here’s an example of how these conjunctions can correct a splice:

SPLICE: I had so much homework, I managed to get it done.

CORRECTED: I had so much homework, yet I managed to get it done.

OR: I had so much homework, but I managed to get it done.

Be careful though; when you use coordinating conjunctions, the meaning will change depending on which one you use.

Here is a HINT: When you need a comma splice cure, remember those 7 coordinating conjunctions in one of these ways: FANBOYS, FONYBAS or SOFYNOB

Thanks for listening, and good luck with your writing! Stay tuned for my next Writing No-No.

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Writing Skills, Videos

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Written by Jincy Kornhauser at Pearson Tutor Services

Is This a Basket?

In our previous discussion of comma usage, we showed that non-essential material is set off with commas—enclosed by “basket handles” that allow us to imagine lifting out the non-essential “basket” to see that the remaining sentence retains its basic meaning.

Here, in a nutshell, is the difference between essential and non-essential material:

1. My dog, Watson, is the bane of my existence.

--implies that you only have one dog, and he makes your life miserable. Even if you didn’t tell us his name, when talking about your dog you’d actually be talking about Watson. “Watson” is a non-essential term.

2. My dog Watson is the bane of my existence.

--implies that you have at least two dogs, and only one of them—Watson—is ruining your life. Any other dog you have is blameless. Removing “Watson” from this expression would make it ambiguous—would, in other words, change its meaning. Removing “Watson” would, in fact, risk besmirching the reputation of another dog!   The full meaning of the sentence depends on how it’s punctuated.

If you think of those commas in Sentence 1 as basket handles, you’ll see that the “basket” can be removed without injuring the basic meaning of the sentence:

My dog is the bane of my existence.

 On the other hand, since “Watson” in Sentence 2 is crucial to the meaning of that sentence, we don’t set it off with commas.

When trying to decide whether a modifying term or phrase is essential, we have to look for the basket.  Examples:

3. I spent most of my life waiting for something to happen.

4. I made my living, such as it was, as a writer of fiction.

In each sentence, the underlined material is clearly descriptive.  (In Sentence 3, it describes the verb “spent”—it acts as an adverb; in Sentence 4, it describes the gerund “living”—it acts as an adjective.)  In order to see whether either phrase is a basket, let’s try lifting it out:

3a. I spent most of my life.

4a. I made my living as a writer of fiction.

As you can see, 3a is an incomplete sentence—it’s missing something essential.  We read it and think…”You spent your life how?” So the underlined phrase is essential to the sentence.  It’s not a basket, and it should not be set off.   Sentence 4a is okay.  It works.  The meaning is the same as Sentence 3—it’s just missing a bit of description, a bit of extra information implying that “my living” was rather austere.  The underlined material is a basket and should be punctuated accordingly.

So:  When trying to figure out whether to use setting-off commas, look for baskets.

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Writing Skills

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