Harry Potter and the Comma Splice

Written by Katie May

J.K. Rowling, forgive me, please. I like your books a lot, but I have to ask: Why did you leave out so many essential punctuation marks? More periods and semicolons would have made the books easier and more fun to read.

I know. I know! It takes one crazy nitpicker to critique a popular and wildly successful author. Believe me, even though I came late to the Harry Potter party, I have a reserved seat at the table now.

Through seven books, through seven—and counting!—movies, I have enjoyed Harry & Co.’s triumphs and misadventures and applauded (OK, envied) the author’s rags-to-riches story. These days, I have a sixth-grader begging me to take her to the latest movie and a second-grader just beginning to read the series on her own. With my preschooler waving a pencil and shouting “Expelliarmus!” I felt inspired to pick up the first volume again.

And yet, as I read it, I remembered why it took me too long to finish the book the first time and even longer to pick up the second book in the series. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (1997) tells an engaging story that draws readers into a detailed and fantastic world. All the same, I can’t help but stumble over lines like these:

Nobody in my family’s magic at all, it was ever such a surprise when I got my letter, but I was ever so pleased, of course, I mean, it’s the very best school of witchcraft there is, I’ve heard—I’ve learned all our course books by heart, of course, I just hope it will be enough—I’m Hermione Granger, by the way, who are you?

(Page 105)

Don’t you care about Gryffindor, do you only care about yourselves, I don’t want Slytherin to win the house cup, and you’ll lose all the points I got from Professor McGonagall for knowing about Switching Spells.

(Page 155)

Filch wouldn’t help us if his life depended on it, he’s too friendly with Snape, and the more students get thrown out, the better, he’ll think.

(Page 247)

Those are world-class examples of run-on sentences, and the common element among them is the comma splice. Too often, Rowling connected main clauses using commas alone. She could have used periods to make separate sentences, semicolons to separate the main clauses or conjunctions (coordinating or subordinate) to improve the sentences’ readability.

Of course, Rowling’s comma splices are so overwhelming that at times she would need all three fixes. Take this rewrite, for example: “Nobody in my family’s magic at all, so it was ever such a surprise when I got my letter. I was ever so pleased, of course; I mean, it’s the very best school of witchcraft there is, I’ve heard. I’ve learned all our course books by heart, of course, but I just hope it will be enough. I’m Hermione Granger, by the way; who are you?”

Re-reading the Harry Potter books has made one thing clear to me: No writer ever should underestimate the value of a good editor. All nitpicking aside, when I compare the relative roughness of the writing in the first book to the polished near-perfection of the seventh, it is clear that Joanne Rowling succeeded in developing her skills and honing her craft. She also, I suspect, found a gifted editor to team with. Together, they made sure that every phrase read as clearly and cleanly as possible. I imagine that if Rowling or her publisher had known that Harry Potter was going to become an international sensation, they both might have paid a bit more attention to details like commas.

As a writer, and as an editor, I have resolved to pretend when I write that every word will be studied and, yes, nitpicked, for generations to come. Comma splices can be as pesky as a pack of freshly caught Cornish pixies, so why not avoid them in the first place?

Just to prove that I really am a big J.K. Rowling/Harry Potter fan: Here is a link to a site that my family could spend hours poring over. The Harry Potter Lexicon is a catalog of fascinating information that all Harry Potter fans will happily devour—including information about the Confundus Charm, something you might find very helpful the next time you face an unruly comma splice.

What drives you crazy? What misstatements and misuses push your grammar buttons? Your friends and family probably tell you to stop nitpicking—at least that’s what I hear all the time.

Don’t listen to those people. You may be a “nitpicker,” but what’s so bad about that? You are a person who cares about language and its proper use. And you are the type of person from whom I want to hear.

Tell me all about your No. 1 communication pet peeve. Is it the people who say things like “supposively”? Is it that sign in the grocery store express lane that beckons to people with “10 items or less”? Whatever it is, I want to hear about it, and so does everyone else here in Nitpicker’s Nook.

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9 responses to “Harry Potter and the Comma Splice

  1. Cheryl Coddington

    My pet-peeve is people who use the inanimate “that” instead of “who” or “whom” to refer to people. Example: “I love the person that gave me this gift.”

  2. I could be giving Rowling a little too much credit here, but I rather thought that this was meant to suggest Hermione’s headlong run-on speaking style. In the first example especially, you can imagine the two boys sitting there goggling at her while this huge wave of verbiage crashes over their heads.

    • Penny, I suspect that you are right; I thought the same thing. However, I personally found the technique irritating, and so it did not have the intended effect. It was distracting, not illuminating, and that most likely is why Rowling and her editor moved away from it.

      Thanks for the response–and, for the record, I approve of giving Rowling too much credit. After all, she pretty much changed the field of juvenile fiction! So often, we see only the polished, highly edited versions. I think it’s a treat to be able to witness her development as a writer.

  3. Katie,

    This is great. I never knew this side of you. I am guilty, guilty, guilty of an overzealous comma. I love the comma, and, am corrected often……………

    My peeve in workplace email communication is the use of “!!!!!!” And people not spell checking their work. The challenge now, and, I too am guilty is with the Iphone or any other texting communication. An intelligent conversation can be minimized in a mirror auto correct or typo.

    Such as the work I have just provided you.

    Julie

  4. “Is it the people who say things like “supposively”? Is it that sign in the grocery store express lane that beckons to people with “10 items or less”? ”

    Yes and yes! But, worst of all, “Where’re you at?”

  5. Using the singular with the plural. It’s in print, on TV, even on NPR. For example:
    “There’s three reasons I don’t like this movie.”
    “Punting and returning is just one way this player has improved the football team.”
    “Here’s Ellie and May; they can lead us.”

    Great work, Katie! Please say HAPPY NEW YEAR to Frank for me. ;-) As I recall, one of his pet peeves has been the mis-use of the comma in a salutation. An example:
    “Hello Katie,”

    • Hi, Jean — I’m having a hard time identifying you from your first name and last initial, but I’ll make sure Frank sees this comment. I agree with you on singular/plural confusion, and I’ll be writing about that in a later posting. Check back and let me know how I do!

      Thanks for commenting.

      ~Katie

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