The Not-So-Humble “Chinese Comma”

Improving English CFL Students’ Understanding of Multi-Clause Sentences


Cynthia Liu

Seton Hall University

The comma is undoubtedly the paramount figure in Chinese sentence segmentation. Accordingly, the average frequency of comma usage in Chinese is a striking one-and-a-half to two times that in English. Roughly seventy-five percent of Chinese sentences are comprised of more than two phrases separated by commas. A look at the word-for-word English renditions of Chinese sentences show that the characteristic multi-chain Chinese sentence contains some of the defining attributes of what in English is understood to be a run-on sentence: comma splices and independent clauses joined together without a conjunction.

With run-on sentences being forbidden in English, this leads to the question of how the English CFL student approaches the multi-clause, complex sentences that form the bulk of written Chinese material. It is well established that the prohibition of run-on sentences in English poses a problem for Chinese ESL students. Is the inverse true? Does the Chinese language’s allowance of the run-on sentence pose any difficulty for English CFL students? In answering this question, the differing reading strategies of both Chinese L1 readers and English L1 readers will be discussed, as well as analytical devices that aid English CFL students in decoding Chinese sentences.