One of the best books I’ve read this year so far is The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. It’s a fast-paced thriller that keeps you guessing at every turn and was hard to put down; I think I finished it in two days. If you enjoyed the novel Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, this book will be right up your alley.
However, this book is littered with grammatical mistakes, the most glaring being the constant use of what English teachers refer to as comma splices. This is a scenario where a writer connects two complete sentences with only a comma. Let me give you an example from the very first page of the book: “It could have been left behind by the engineers who work this part of the track, they’re here often enough.”
Ninety percent of the population will look at that sentence and not see any problem. It nagged at me, and I saw more and more throughout the book. Here’s the problem: “It could have been left behind by the engineers who work this part of the track” is a complete sentence. So is “they’re here often enough.” There are three ways to write those two sentences.
The first is the easiest. Simply put a period after the first sentence and start the second sentence with a capital letter. The second is also something that most of my readers may recall from their grammar studies. You can connect both sentences with a conjunction, in this case a word such as “for,” and then place a comma prior to that conjunction.
The third way is the least used and probably the most misunderstood. That is to place a semicolon between the two sentences. You remember the semicolon? Your English teacher spent about 10 minutes on it in junior high. My students often call it the comma with a period over it.
I remember being taught to rarely use a semicolon. It can be used to connect two complete thoughts, but those thoughts should be very closely related. You would not write, “I walked down the street; my sister was sleeping at home.” Those two thoughts aren’t very closely related. However, it would be okay to say, “I walked down the street; I had to leap out of the way of a car.” One idea leads to the next.
What frightens me is that books continue to be shabbily edited. I find mistakes all the time in best-selling books that scare the dickens out of me. Words are left out of sentences, punctuation is wrong, and I even find misspellings. I wonder if book companies are trying to pump books out so quickly at a cheaper rate that they have cut out some of the important revisions and re-readings that are necessary prior to publishing.
If there’s one area my students struggle with the most, it’s the proper use of commas. Most of them would look at the example I used and say the comma looked right. After all, you would pause when you read that, right? That’s a good place for a comma. While that’s often a good rule for using a comma, writers have to take the extra moment to review the overall sentence and make sure it’s not the aforementioned comma splice in action.
I call some of those users comma-holics; they like to use commas everywhere they might take a breath. Yet, they will probably forget the necessary comma on Facebook when they wish somebody a happy birthday and put the person’s name after it. Remember that rule from your grammar class? When you talk directly to someone, put a comma before their name (or after it if the name starts the sentence). So when folks posted on my Facebook page, they should’ve written, “Happy birthday, Mark!” You don’t necessarily pause, which makes that a tough sell as a go-to for using commas.
I often joke that my mutant power is knowing when to use commas. I doubt the X-Men could use me for that unless it was to read their outgoing correspondence. It’s not easy to know all the rules; plus, some of them have changed since many of us were in school. The most important thing is to slow down when writing and double check before sending.
And even if you never find a use for a semicolon, maybe you’ll find better uses for commas than connecting two complete thoughts, even if that comma is only a nice addition the next time you write happy birthday to someone!
Word of the Week: This week’s word is gongoozler, which means one who stares for hours at anything out of the ordinary, such as, “The gongoozler spent hours staring at a piece of writing using more semicolons than periods.” Impress your friends and confuse your enemies!