Maybe he told her everything, maybe he'd been watching me all this time.

Is this considered a comma splice? Why or why not?

  • It's not wrong, per se; but it does separate two independent clauses with a comma. IMO, a semicolon would be more apt here. May 16 '15 at 6:24

"Comma splice" isn't a term with a strict definition. Generally, people use the term when they think a pair of independent clauses that are joined without a coordinator would be better written as separate sentences. In other words, they call this sort of thing a "comma splice" if they consider it an error.

Sentences can sometimes be joined without an explicit coordinator like and or or. Writers tend to do this when they're closely related in meaning or structure. For example:

I came, I saw, I conquered.

Although this has no explicit coordinator, this famous example has nonetheless been written as a single sentence. All three clauses are similar in structure and are related in meaning. It works.

When it works, people tend to call it asyndeton.
When it doesn't work, they tend to call it a comma splice.

But that's more of a judgment call than anything, because there's no strict technical definition that separates one from the other.

Maybe he told her everything, maybe he'd been watching me all this time.

I'd call it the asyndetic coordination of two clauses that are similar in structure and related in meaning. It seems fine to me the way it is. (I can't guarantee that an English teacher wouldn't mark it with a red pen, though.)

  • An enlightened English teacher would approach the sentence from the point of view of the effect the writer was hoping to achieve. Its context appears to be a story, where there's much greater freedom from the conventions of punctuation than with a newspaper or journal article, say. Joining the two statements with a comma produces a trickle that could turn into a stream of consciousness. May 15 '15 at 13:35
  • It probably works fine, but as @LucianSava notes, I came, I saw, I conquered is not what Julius Caesar wrote, seeing as neither the English language nor those words actually existed (in their current form, anyway) at the time he was writing. It’s entirely possible for things to be acceptable in one language, and generally not in another, but for a translator to keep the form true to the source even though it’s “wrong” in the target language. This isn’t an example of that (since it’s pretty much equally “odd but it can work” in both languages), but the example feels like it needs back-up.
    – KRyan
    May 15 '15 at 13:50

Yes it's a comma splice, as "maybe he told her everything" is an independent clause and so is "maybe he'd been watching me the whole time".

However, it's not a style error as suggested by Wikipedia. Using a comma splice makes the narrator sound scared and anxious, as he's too nervous to link the two clauses together.

  • 2
    In "Maybe X, maybe Y, maybe Z", I'd say that the "maybes" fill a role similar to "neither" and "nors" in "neither X, nor Y, nor Z". While "maybe" can serve as an adverb in an independent clause, I don't think that's its sole grammatical function.
    – supercat
    May 15 '15 at 18:24

The term "maybe" can and often does serve as an adverb, but in the structure "Maybe X, maybe Y" the uses of "maybe" behave as conjunctions similar to "either" and "or" in the construct "either X or Y". The construct with "maybe" may be extended to an arbitrary number of items--not just two--and generally requires that items be separated by commas and that "maybe" be included before each.

In many cases it is appropriate to use a coordinating conjunction along with "maybe", but different coordinating conjunctions imply different relationships between the things being joined. In some cases, it's possible that "Maybe X or maybe Y", "Maybe X and maybe Y", "Maybe X, but maybe Y", etc. would all have inappropriate implications about how the truth of X and the truth of Y are related. Saying "Maybe X; maybe Y" would have the opposite problem, suggesting that X and Y should be considered independent propositions. Saying "Maybe X, maybe Y" suggests that the author doesn't want to imply that X and Y are unrelated, but doesn't want to imply any particular relationship between them either.

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