Comma Splices and Premarital Sex: Both Still “Things”

A few months ago, while tutoring at Y.E.S., I was helping a 4th grader with a worksheet on commas.  The worksheet provided two paragraphs, with these instructions:  “Insert the missing __ commas.”  One paragraph’s instructions said seven, and the other’s said fifteen.  Those were the only instructions, and I could see no other grammatical errors in either paragraph besides missing commas.  While filling in the worksheet, however, we twice came across sentences like this:

Jack picked up his baseball glove he went to the game.

In case your English classes are a little fuzzy in your memory, those are two independent clauses (“Jack picked up his baseball glove,” and “he went to the game”) smushed together (update:  apparently, “smushed” is not a word).  In English, there are three ways to separate independent clauses:  a period, a semi-colon, and a coma + conjunction.  You can NOT put just a comma between them.  Two independent clauses separated by a comma is called a comma splice, and it is considered a major grammatical error.  And yet, the instructions only allowed the student to place commas to correct the errors.  Hence, the worksheet was prompting the student to form comma splices.

As an English nerd, I was appalled.

I refused to let the student put a comma there; instead, I had her put a semi-colon.  Who cared that she did not even know what a semi-colon was (*sob*)?  We were not going to make comma splices on MY watch!  I also wrote a little note to the teacher at the bottom of the page reminding her about comma splices (yes, I did).  I then vented to everyone around me who would listen, and left the tutoring session full of indignation.

Later, however, I began to second-guess myself.  I had to admit that comma splices were an epidemic among my college students, and they were having a really hard time wrapping their minds around the idea that they were wrong.  Plus, I had to admit that I saw comma splices everywhere I looked, even on advertisements and in published materials.  I even stopped reading Luke the Magic Treehouse series because of all the comma splices and sentence fragments!  So…maybe comma splices were okay now?  Even though I was raised to think that comma splices were wrong, and the grammar manuals to which I had referred throughout the semester also seemed to think they were wrong, I had to admit the possibility that such teachings were outdated.  After all, language is fluid, and the rules of grammar are always subtly shifting.  If my college students had not been taught that comma splices were wrong, and these elementary students were apparently being taught that they were just fine, then maybe I was the one who was wrong!  Maybe comma splices weren’t “still a thing.”

A reminder hanging in the hallway at my college.

Confused, I resolved to ask the head of the English department the next day at school.  I ran into him and another veteran professor in the hallway and posed the question, “Are comma splices still wrong?”  Now, I have to tell you that both of these professors are rather liberal in matters of grammar, as the trend among teaching writing is to move away from grammar and focus on content.  Even so, the rain of indignation that immediately poured down upon comma splices left no doubt as to their current, taboo nature.  Words like, “very, very wrong,” “major grammar error,” and “inelegant” abounded, and the veteran professor even said, “It tells me that they don’t know what constitutes a sentence.”  There was no doubt that these professors thought comma splices were wrong.  I felt better; after all, I had been waging a one-woman war against comma splices all semester!

Even though my heart told me that comma splices were “still a thing,” I felt like I had to ask because of all the evidence that suggested it wasn’t still a thing:  it was apparently being taught in public schools, most of the twenty-somethings I knew had no problem with it, I seemed to see it everywhere in culture, and people seemed to be forgetting why it was wrong.

So…along those lines, I also feel compelled to ask,

Is premarital sex still a thing?

No, really.  I’ve been raised to think it was wrong, and the Bible seems to clearly define proper sexuality as being solely within the realm of marriage, but based on the anecdotal evidence of Greg’s twitter feed and my 173 young, single, mommy friends on Facebook (not really, but it’s a lot), plus the not-so-anecdotal evidence of studies likethe one mentioned in this article, I am beginning to think we are undergoing a shift in thinking about sexual morality, not just in society, but in the church.  Because you see, 98% of Greg’s twitter friends and my Facebook friends are people whom I met in church.  Most would call themselves Christians. 

Now, before I ask my next question, I’ve got to say this:  I agree that the church has mishandled the sex issue in all sorts of ways, and I’m glad that we are exploring different ways to get our point across.  For example, in a recent post, Richard Beck argues that it is perhaps more relevant to talk about sexual promiscuity to college students in terms of wisdom and foolishness, rather than sin.  Also in the recent past, Rachel Held Evans has claimed that sex is one of the church’s blind spots, that we often use the virgin/whore dichotomy of looking at the issue, and that such talk further alienates sexually active people, rather than bringing them to repentance.  Even more recently, there was a debate on the site, Mere Orthodoxy, where one side was advocating that, given the number of sexually active young Christians, the church should start teaching about contraception.

So…okay, I get all that.  And part of me is glad that we are thinking outside the box here, seeing that our past efforts have tended to fail miserably.  But sometimes I just want to ask, “Can we still say that it is wrong?”

Seriously–can we?  Like, to people we know who are sexually active?  Should we?  Would it help, or would it only alienate?  I really wonder these things, because sometimes, for me, it often seems like the elephant in the room.  It sometimes seems that, while all of us in our little Christian bubble are yelling about the importance of sexual purity, we don’t always do a good job of effectively conveying that concept to people outside of our little Christian bubble.  Thus, we seem kind of like my English professors, ranting about comma splices, while most of the world doesn’t even know what comma splices are.  The problem is, I don’t really know how to pop that bubble, practically speaking, in my own life.

Now, don’t get me wrong:  as a youth minister’s wife, I’m not uncomfortable talking to teens about sex (sample question from teen when I first got into youth ministry:  “Have you ever had sex twice in one day?  What about six times?”).  I didn’t necessarily answer all those questions, but trust me, I have not the slightest problem telling young teenage virgins, pseudo-virgins, and almost-virgins to wait until marriage.  That conversation gets substantially more awkward, however, when I’m dealing with twenty-somethings who have been sexually active for a decade and truly see no problem with it.  I feel like I sound backwards, a complete relic of a bygone era.  And I don’t always handle it well.  Here, for example, is an excerpt from a conversation I recently had, in which I tried to work the concept of sex within marriage:

20-something woman:  Yeah, my mom has had a boyfriend for six years.  Before you ask, they don’t have plans to get married.

Me [laughing uncomfortably]:  Well…I mean, I kind of understand where they are coming from…

Woman:  Yeah, all my friends think I’m weird when I say I want to get married.

Me:  I think it’s good you want to get married.  With your mom, though, I was saying that I understand where she might be coming from because if she’s not a Christian….see, the Christian view of marriage is that [glancing back at my kids in their carseats] you wait, you know, until you get married, so…there’s not much chance of someone just staying together for years and years without it. 

Woman:  [laughs]

Me [pressing forward through the awkwardness]:  See, the Bible teaches that marriage is supposed to last forever, and most people don’t think of it like that today.  And so, you know, if you aren’t a Christian and don’t follow the Bible, then I could see why you wouldn’t want to get married…

What on earth?  What was I even trying to say?  I guess I was trying to remind the woman that marriage is more than just a word, since she said she wanted to get married one day, while at the same time trying not to come down too hard on her mom.  Good grief.  I sarcastically thought to myself, “Well, you handled that well,” and the conversation moved to something more benign.

Here’s the rub:  I think premarital sex is still a thing.  I think that it is wrong.  And I don’t say this as a cultural warrior, or someone who is ringing her hands and fearing for the future of our country (love casts out fear, my friends).  But I say this as a person who knows a lot of single moms…and to a woman, not one of them seems happy with her life.  In fact, the default setting for them seems to be “depressed and overwhelmed.”  And I don’t blame them one bit.  I cannot imagine raising children on my own; it’s hard enough when you are blessed with a support system.  And I do see it as a natural part of my Christian identity to help the single moms as much as I can.  Yet, with all that I do, I cannot replace a husband.  Being in this situation, I can’t help but think that it almost seems like I would be doing people a favor to overtly and regularly discuss God’s plan for marriage.  And yet, again, how do you do that in a culture when sex outside of marriage is the norm without alienating people?  I really don’t know yet.

By the way, a few week’s later, I asked the student from tutoring about her teacher’s reaction to my comma splice note.  The student shrugged her shoulders and said, “I don’t know; she just seemed kind of confused.”

So am I, teacher.  So am I.

Any thoughts on how to handle the sex issue with twenty-somethings in the church?  And do you think premarital sex is still a “thing”?

19 responses to this post.

  1. I loved the comma story! I thought I was the only nerd. Lizard, who is also in fourth grade, and I were just learning about compound sentences, independent clauses, run-on sentences, etc. It doesn’t surprise me about the teacher. When I was a resource teacher, I saw a lot of things from teachers. Some of my pet peeves besides the comma splices are: 1. A lot is NOT one word, and 2. “They’re,” “their,” and “there” are three different words. I know are. more that I just can’t remember right now. 🙂

    Reply

    • Yeah, I do cringe with the “their/there/they’re” thing, although it is often at myself. For some reason, I tend to type “their” as the default, when I really mean “there.” I’m forever going back to correct that.
      And it’s funny–even though I’m an English nerd, I often can be liberal with grammar. For instance, I break all kind of grammatical rules when I blog, but I think nothing of it. That’s because for me, the purpose of language is communication, and sometimes the little rules really DO get outdated. I do continue to hate comma splices, though, and it just killed me that they seemed to be reinforced by this worksheet!

      Reply

  2. Don’t know what to tell you about the premarital sex. I’ve been wondering about that myself.

    Reply

  3. Posted by stroogie on May 17, 2012 at 10:15 am

    I agree that if you believe God’s plan for our sexuality is the best and most fulfilling way, it would be unloving not to speak into others’ lives about it. I feel the same way with my gay friends. Obviously there, you have the extra layer of abuse and hurt they’ve gone through. But since sexuality has become all about personal freedom of expression, pointing out someone’s sin in this area, gay or straight, is tantamount to attacking their identity as a person. I’ve no idea how to “pop this bubble.” I have a feeling it may be like ripping off a band-aid. It’ll hurt me, but it’s just something I have to learn to do.

    Reply

    • “But since sexuality has become all about personal freedom of expression, pointing out someone’s sin in this area, gay or straight, is tantamount to attacking their identity as a person.”

      Exactly! I wish we could someone separate that back out, but I don’t really know how–and honestly, I don’t think anyone knows how. Well, at least, I certainly don’t.

      I also think that you are right, of course, to see the parallels between extra-marital heterosexuality and homosexuality. What gets me is that, unlike you, most of my Christian friends (myself included, honestly) don’t really seem to have any gay friends. And yet many of them see it as their duty to “stand up boldly for the truth” in that area when I guarantee you that they know many Christian brothers and sisters personally who are struggling with proper heterosexuality…and yet, I don’t tend to hear anything about THAT. I’m not saying it has to be an either/or thing, but in my mind, if one were a bigger problem, it would be wrongly expressed heterosexuality, especially in the church!

      Reply

  4. Posted by Tim on May 17, 2012 at 11:32 am

    Two great stories, Kim.

    On comma splices, I once had the church secretary tell me that the Bible study I just wrote for the Sunday sermon contained a comma splice. I looked back at what I wrote and saw that it wasn’t a comma splice at all (as it did not connect two independent clauses), merely a list of adjectives following a subject (something like “He was weary, hungry, thirsty beyond all measure”).

    As a fellow language nerd, I hasten to add to the colon your list of separators for independent clauses. It’s a somewhat archaic use, but still acceptable. According to The Oxford Companion to the English Language (which I read cover to cover – told you I was a nerd) the colon has a ton more functions than merely introducing a list.

    On the premarital sex thing, I really appreciate your description of how people view the subject as old-fashioned, almost as if it were a quaint notion from a bygone era. Yet I think some of the Apostles’ contemporaries also might have looked at them as if they had two heads when they posited the same value: marriage is the only relationship for sex. Paul, Silas and Barnabas, for example, ministered to the Greek and Roman cultures where folks went at it like rabbits! Sex only in marriage, and only heterosexual sex at that? Quam horrendum!

    Tim

    Reply

    • Ah, the colon. I love it so much, but I have to admit, I don’t have as thorough an understanding of it as I would like. Since much of my knowledge of grammar was imbibed through reading, I have a good idea of when to use the colon in my writing, but I don’t really know how to explain it on a strictly grammatical level. That might be because I have NOT read The Oxford Companion to the English Language from cover to cover (nerd!).

      And good point about the atmosphere of Paul’s day. Honestly, I think a lot of what I am feeling is “culture shock” as I move from being part of the dominant culture to being more in the minority. I’m so used to being able to take for granted that most people, at least in theory, agree with my morality that it is disconcerting to realize that such general agreement no longer exists. And while I don’t think the answer to this growing disparity is to try to force people to agree with my viewpoint through legislation, I do struggle with how to balance truth and love in my own interactions with people who disagree with me.

      Reply

      • Posted by Tim on May 17, 2012 at 1:57 pm

        Struggling with the balance, hmm? Join the club! I found it seems to be getting easier the more I do it, but that may just be a by-product of getting older. See what benefits you have to look forward to in a few more decades?

        One area I have really stretched in regards LGBTQ circles. One of my best friends now is a judge in another county who is also a charter member of the LGBTQ section of the California Judges Association. I was there for the inaugural event a few years ago. Have I signed off on a gay agenda? No, but I also have not written off my friends, and he is one of the best. His husband’s pretty good guy too.

        Reply

  5. Posted by bekster081305 on May 17, 2012 at 3:34 pm

    I totally would have done the same thing as you regarding the comma splices on the worksheet. How frustrating! When I was in school, I also had some under-educated educators, and my mom was not shy about taking a red pen to various documents from them.

    I feel the same way about the premarital sex thing too. I admit that I have found myself wondering what the actual “rule” is supposed to be now since the culture has definitely changed over the past few decades. It’s so tricky because, for a long time, American Christians were able to take it for granted that societal rules lined up with Christian morality. In many ways, we have confused the two (which is a big part of why it is such a prevalent idea that Christians are “supposed” to be Republicans, but I digress). This is a big problem now that even the Church is starting to identify more with the popular morality of the world. While it is definitely very frustrating not to be able to lean on society to give legitimacy to the ideas in the Bible—and especially frustrating not even to be able to assume that all CHRISTIANS believe these things—the truth is that Christians were never meant to mirror society. We certainly want to help society mirror Christ, but if we can accomplish this, we still need to be mirroring Christ himself ourselves and not the supposedly Christ-like society that we have created (because, by its very nature, it will always be flawed). We are supposed to be “set apart” (which I find EXTREMELY hard to live out in practice, especially when I’m also trying to be “all things to all people”).

    As for how/whether to talk to our Christian friends about it, I just don’t know. Personally, I feel like it may do more harm than good to be very “in your face” about the whole thing. If the point is to help our Christian brothers and sisters not to sin (people who don’t even claim to be Christians are a different story), then causing them to take up a defensive stance doesn’t seem like it would do any good. On the other hand, it does seem like it would be unloving not to say ANYTHING about it.

    I think maybe the difference in response to premarital sex and to homosexuality is based on how the proponents of these things talk about it themselves. Homosexuals are screaming for acceptance, but fornicators feel like they are already accepted. Also, premarital sex (mostly) is not a political issue. Everyone is talking about homosexuality now because there are political decisions that are being made about it now. Premarital sex, on the other hand, (except for things that happen because of it, like increased unwanted pregnancies that lead to abortions, etc.) is predominantly a Church issue. Even then it is mostly something that is just between the actual couples who are sexually active, so it tends not to be anyone else’s business. Still, if we believe that it is bad spiritually for our brothers and sisters to do this, it kinda is our business. I just don’t know what really to do about it.

    Reply

    • Posted by Tim on May 17, 2012 at 4:05 pm

      “… we have confused the two (which is a big part of why it is such a prevalent idea that Christians are “supposed” to be Republicans, but I digress).”

      You made me laugh, Becky!

      Reply

  6. You rock, and I can’t stand comma splices! 🙂

    Reply

  7. Posted by John Sparrow on May 17, 2012 at 11:55 pm

    God’s way is always “old-fashioned” because it was “fashioned” a long time ago. The best way for us to live will always be the same. Only when we realize that God gave us these “rules” because He only wants the best for His children can we appreciate the wisdom in them. Seeing our society and churches shrug off God’s wisdom and loving guidance as if we are smarter than He is sad and frustrating. Whether it is premarital sex or homosexuality or greed or lying or coveting or any other bit of “less than best” behavior our society may deem acceptable, it is a step away from God. How to convince someone of the folly of ignoring His loving directions is a daunting challenge. We can only pass on His wisdom and love to each other and pray that some day we may all “get it”. We may need to get used to being laughed at.:-)

    Reply

    • Posted by Tim on May 18, 2012 at 10:31 am

      Good points, John. I also think that while we are to speak the truth in love, we also should not expect others to be able to understand spiritual truths no matter how well we speak them, absent the work of the Holy Spirit:

      The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. (1 Cor. 2:14.)

      Of course, their lack of understanding is never a good reason to refrain from speaking and finding joy in God’s truth!

      Tim

      Reply

  8. quick thoughts…

    funny, i guess i have always been taught and always thought of premarital sex as “wrong”, but we have taught our own children more on the repercussions of premarital sex…physically, mentally, emotionally, and relationally. i think larry and i have said it’s wrong, but i think that isn’t enough to keep them from making that decision. talking through the “what ifs” has had deeper meaning to them than just banning it.

    and as a christian, i have several good friends who proclaim they are gay/lesbian. i must admit that recently i have been thinking a lot about how to talk to them if they ever asked me point-blank what i thought. i’ve never purposely brought up the subject, nor have i condemned them. they are my friends who are struggling with the temptation of sin, and the struggle of not acting on those temptations, just as i am. so i pray for grace and mercy for us all.

    Reply

    • Ann, that’s how I have always approached the area of premarital sex with teens: I discuss the spiritual side, but then emphasize the practical risks and consequences (physically, mentally, emotionally, and relationally, as you say). But don’t you see how that would not work with people who have already been sexually active for years? Either they have not experienced those consequences or have experienced them, but the consequences are not enough of a deterrent. Either way, they now know a lot more than I do in that realm (i.e. of sexual promiscuity), and so I’m hardly an expert to discuss the consequences of sex with them. Thus, I’m forced to rely on the spiritual, biblical argument. It makes the discussion a lot more spiritual/religious than “practical.” Hence, my dilemma, as just saying that something is “wrong” doesn’t seem to hold a lot of water these days.

      Reply

  9. i think that they have most likely seen the consequences, but sometimes when you are already down the rabbit hole, you see no way back. sometimes facing your mistakes and changing your lifestyle (what appears to be the “good” or “right” choice) seems more difficult than continuing to live where you are. i think about a “friend” that was so far into drugs and alcohol that when faced with getting clean and living a “good” life, he could not fathom it. it scared him. he could not imagine life like that. so he died in his world, never thinking he could ever come into ours. granted, that was an altered mind, but i think any of us that are trying to make a change in our lives find it difficult to imagine leaving the other behind. the flesh is, well, fleshly…i understand what you are saying.

    Reply

  10. Posted by William on July 25, 2014 at 11:06 am

    A good resource on having the premarital sex conversation is a book titled “Theology of Her Body/Theology of His Body,” by Jason Evert. I made my 12-year-old son read it, so we could talk about God’s plan for him

    Reply

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