Punctuation pedantry and the Liberal Democrats

A trend of comma splices is sweeping through the written world – some would say wrongly. But does it matter?

What do we know about effective copywriting? Well, one thing is that engaging copy means short, sharp, snappy sentences. (There are 10 other things here, according to advertising guru John Caples.)

So why has something called the comma splice suddenly popped up into corporate writing, from KPMG reports to Liberal Democrat manifestos?

The comma splice

Firstly, what is it? Let’s turn to Oxford Dictionaries for this:

A comma splice happens when a comma inappropriately links two independent clauses.

e.g. She’s an outstanding student, she’ll go far.

The clauses are totally independent. There is no need for them to be linked by a comma. They should: a) be separate sentences; b) have a conjunction; c) use a semi-colon; or d) use a colon.

Writing in the Financial Times, Michael Skapinker vented his frustration at the practice. He starts his article at home while picking up his post:

“A leaflet from the Liberal Democrats drops through my letter box. ‘Elections in Hornsey and Wood Green are between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, the other parties are out of the race here.’”

He asks why the two phrases are linked as such, before going on to point out two other recent examples. There’s the letter from British Airways that states: “I’m delighted to welcome you to another year as a Silver Member, here is your new membership card.”

And there’s KPMG’s March report: “There may be some scope to reduce the sector’s labour force requirements through productivity improvements and automation, however extensive productivity gains are unlikely to be possible.”

Does it matter?

Well, yes. A quick check of the comments section shows various amounts of fervour and irritation, including concern at some of Skapinker’s own grammar. Somebody calling themselves ‘Fellow grammar enthusiast’ writes: “Ironic that an article discussing grammatical errors does not use the correct form of e.g.”

‘WillStewart’ chips in: “The real issue is some people’s stubborn attachment to definite ‘rules’.” 

Clearly it’s a bit of a minefield. One argument in favour of the comma splice is that they were widely used by such literary luminaries as Shakespeare, Chaucer and Jane Austen. But this isn’t the Elizabethan era, neither is it the Middle Ages, nor are we in Georgian society.

Style guide

Good content marketing should, first and foremost, engage its audience. So in the case of the comma splice, it seems unnecessarily longwinded and formal.

The problem with such complaints is that it ultimately comes down to style. If you’re producing content on a regular basis (and if you’re not, why not?) then you will need a style guide to refer back to. This post from the Content Desk archives looks at tips for creating your own style guide – and it’s something we’ll be returning to in the coming weeks.

The Lib Dems are not taking cues from classic English literature in their letterbox leaflets. Their example is a case of poor subbing.

You might not agree with Michael Skapinker’s grammar evangelism but we can all get behind his attention to detail. Take a look at other Content Desk archive pieces on Pedant power and Lynne Truss’s best-selling grammar book Eats, Shoots & Leaves.

And feel free to email me and correct my grammar (or anything else) here.

[Note: External links, such as Michael Skapinker’s article for the FT, may adhere to paid subscription models.]

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