Q. Hi. A fiction author of ours hates the word that and often replaces it with a comma. For example: “The interior was so dark, she made out only shadowy shapes.” And “Her eyes fell on a cup, and a memory rose up with such clarity, she released a little gasp.” In such cases, we might offer her suggestions to rephrase, but would you let the commas stand? Or would you consider these sentences to have comma splices? This comes up a lot in fiction with other authors, too, so we’d love to hear your opinion! Thanks.
A. Your author’s style seems fine to us. The word that—whether as a relative pronoun or, as in your examples, as a subordinating conjunction—is often omitted. Relative pronoun: “The room [that] I entered was shadowy.” Subordinating conjunction: “I was so hungry [that] I nearly fainted.”
In the first case, a comma in place of that would be clearly wrong; commas never set off a restrictive relative clause (called a contact clause when the relative pronoun is omitted). But a comma in the second example might add a bit of clarity, especially if the clauses were longer and you didn’t have the option of retaining that.
Nor would we necessarily consider your sentences as having comma splices; they’re more like compound sentences with elided conjunctions. If you’re consistent with your author’s prose and suggest rephrasing wherever clarity is at stake, her style will begin to seem natural, allowing the story to take center stage.