Test English vs. Real English

On the very first page of Zadie Smith’s novel Swing Time, I saw a comma splice: “The flat was on the eighth floor, the windows looked over the cricket ground.” Then, a few sentences later, I saw another one: “I looked at my phone, it was sitting on the counter in airplane mode.” Pretty soon, I realized that they were everywhere.

Zadie Smith knows the standard rules of English; her previous writing – including the incredible White Teeth – makes that very clear. Smith is aware that, according to grammarians, you can’t combine two independent clauses with a comma. (On the SAT, there are usually two or three questions that assess whether students can recognize a comma splice.) 

This example perfectly illustrates the difference between “test English” and real English. Tests like the SAT, ACT, GRE, and TOEFL ask questions about common features of the English language. And right now, comma splices are generally seen as a mistake; you won’t find The New York Times using them.

But English – like all languages – is evolving. Zadie Smith probably chose to use comma splices because they allow her sentences to sound a certain way, to capture a very particular feeling. If she had been able to create that effect using different grammar or punctuation, perhaps she might have done so. But in this case, comma splices may have been the best way to convey what she wanted to convey.

This is how real language changes – when people decide that they need to adapt or invent in order to express themselves fully. Some of those adaptations eventually become widely accepted, and then they become the new conventions. In other words, grammatical rules – and the people who make tests about those rules – are always a step behind.

And that’s fine, too. When you prepare for standardized tests, you’ll learn really valuable things about the English language. Most of it will be accurate, but some of it will sound a little different from what you hear in the real world (or what you read in your favorite books). When you study, then, remember: you’re studying to take a test. Studying the English language is bigger and messier – but also more fun.

Photo: Zadie Smith, by Linda Brownlee.