If you haven’t yet seen Eric K. Auld’s “Seven Bar Jokes Involving Grammar and Punctuation” on McSweeneys.net (excerpt pictured above), I’ll wait while you go chuckle.
We’ll examine the first one; the rest are yours to enjoy with no lessons attached.
1. A comma splice walks into a bar, it has a drink and then leaves.
Most writers and editors know instinctively that an independent clause (a sentence) calls for a stop. When they want to show a close relationship between two sentences, however, they sometimes falter into this error: the comma splice. Commas are not stops. A comma is not strong enough by itself to splice together two independent clauses. It needs the help of a coordinating conjunction (such as and, but, or or), or it needs to give way to stronger punctuation (the period or semicolon).
In the given joke, the independent clauses are “a comma splice [subject] walks [verb] into a bar” and “it [subject] has [verb] a drink and then leaves [another verb for it].” These corrected sentences destroy the humor but demonstrate common fixes for comma splices:
A comma splice walks into a bar, and it has a drink and then leaves.
By adding a coordinating conjunction (and) in the first example, we shore up the comma enough to stand between two independent clauses. We do not, however, create a very elegant fix, and we have likely diluted the writer’s intent.*
A comma splice walks into a bar. It has a drink and then leaves.
A period creates a full stop between the two independent clauses, so it’s an obvious choice for correcting comma splices. It should be used with care, however. It corrects the comma splice but removes the writer’s intent of showing a stronger relationship between the two sentences. It might work here because the familiar format helps the reader identify the first sentence as an obvious setup for the second.
A comma splice walks into a bar; it has a drink and then leaves.
A semicolon is strong enough to separate two independent clauses, yet it allows them to remain linked together in one sentence. A semicolon is often the simplest and most appropriate fix for a comma splice.
Are comma splices common in the material you edit?
*There is another “comma fix” for this sentence. Since it, the subject of the second clause, is a pronoun referencing the subject of the first clause (splice), we can remove it and allow the first subject to carry all of the verbs: A comma splice walks into a bar, has a drink, and then leaves. This corrects the comma splice, but, again, may not tell the story the writer intended to tell with these two sentences.
Image from McSweeneys.net.