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Master sentence variety, avoid comma splices in essays

Across many college campuses today, writing essays without a massive infusion of comma splices, run-on’s, fused sentences, and other comma errors have become an illusion to majority of students. In my years of experience as a journalist, tutor, and lecturer, a startling revelation I have made is that students commit these egregious errors because they can’t differentiate between a compound sentence and a complex sentence and how they are punctuated.

Master sentence variety, avoid comma splices in essays

As a result, if students are encouraged to master the four main categories of sentences in the English language, about 80% of their punctuating dilemma is solved. Here, I must emphasize that I don’t mean statements; what I mean is sentence structure. By sentence structure, I mean simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex sentences.

Here are the definitions of the various four sentences and their punctuations: 1) A simple sentence has one independent clause and expresses a complete thought. For a sentence to be independent, it must have a subject and a predicate. For example, Tamika is a brilliant writer. “Tamika” is the subject and “is a brilliant writer” is the predicate.

Note: A simple sentence can also have multiple subjects and a predicate or one subject and multiple predicates.

2a). A compound sentence has two or more independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction with a comma preceding the coordinate conjunction. Kwame is a gifted basketball player, but Sasha is a terrific poet. Note the separation of the two independent clauses with the coordinating conjunction “but” and the comma.

Indeed, the use of a comma before the coordinating conjunction is required by MLA (Modern Languages Association), but associations like APA (American Psychological Association) don’t require a comma before a coordinating conjunction in independent clauses.

2b). A compound sentence can also be an asyndeton. Asyndeton sentences are separated by semi-colons instead of coordinating conjunctions. Example: She went; she dared; she prevailed.

2c). Furthermore, a compound sentence can be separated with a conjunctive adverb. Example: The football team played well; however, the coach was not too pleased with the team’s performance.

Master sentence variety,

3). A complex sentence has one independent clause and one or more dependent phrases. Example: During the snow storm, many of the company’s employees declined to go to the office. Notice that there is a comma after the dependent phrase.

4). A compound-complex sentence has two or more independent sentences and one or more dependent phrases. Example: Since he graduated from Howard University, David Oliver has progressed to win an Olympic bronze medal, but he is anticipating to win a gold medal in the 2012 London Olympic Games.

A comma splice error occurs when commas are wrongly used in sentences, and in MLA terminology, a run-on error occurs when a compound sentence is written without a comma before the coordinating conjunction. A fused sentence error occurs when there is no comma after the dependent phrase in a complex sentence. However, some authors use run-on’s and fused sentences interchangeably.

Furthermore, there are just seven coordinating conjunctions in the English language, and these are for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so. To help you remember them, they have a mnemonic acronym, FANBOYS.

On the other hand, there many subordinating conjunctions that you can use in your complex and compound-complex sentences. Some examples are when, while, although, because, even though, before, after, since, so that, etc.

Note that the use of subordinating conjunctions, sometimes, confuses some students to write fragments as independent clauses. Example: When she came home. Although this phrase has a subject and a predicate, it cannot stand on its own because the subordinating conjunction “when” renders it a dependent phrase.

How To Use The Comma

There are some simple rules to follow concerning the use of the comma. Maybe simple isn’t the right word, since most people can’t seem to follow them.

The Comma As A Separator

avoid comma splices in essays

One of the most obvious ways the comma is used is as a separator. It’s used to separate parts of a series, such as this example –

I went to the bank, the store, and the car wash.

There has been some debate about whether the comma should be used before the and in these kinds of sentences. The consensus hasn’t been unanimous, but most people want it there. There are some teachers and editors that say to leave it out. If you run across them, I advise you do what they say.

The comma separates compound sentences that are joined using a conjunction, like this example –

I wanted to go out for lunch, but everyone brought their food.

The comma also separates interjections as seen in this example –

Hey, get out of the way.

Other Comma Uses

You will want to use a comma if you have a phrase before the subject. That way the reader knows the subject is about to appear. It would look like this –

When we pass the old water tower, I know home is around the corner.

Taking a break from work, Joe rested on the steps.

Sometimes you want to put something in a sentence that will interrupt the flow. This could be anything from a name to a description. The following sentences are examples of this –

Brian introduced his wife, Jill, to the principal.

The mouse, dirty from years of use, didn’t work very well.

A comma can be used to show contrasts as well. Take a look at this sentence –

He wanted to have fun this weekend, not work.

Common Comma Abuses

One of the main comma abuses is throwing in a comma when there is no need for one. You do not want to impede the flow of the reader. Do this too much and they will become annoyed. No one wants an annoyed reader.

Adding a comma to separate words joined by and or or is another way the comma is misused. It’s easy to do and can be confusing. Take a look at this wrong sentence –

I walked to my car, and drove home.

An addition or subtraction of a comma can change the whole meaning of the sentence making it comma abuse. As the title of the wonderfully named book Eats, Shoots, and Leaves shows us, one little comma, or in this case two, can have a totally different meaning. For those not in the know, the title is referring to the eating habits of panda bears.

Mastering The Comma

These really are the basics of using the comma, but should get you by in everyday writing. Mastering any aspect of the English language is never easy to do. Hopefully we are all learning and growing.

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