Comma use with direct address

I’ve been focusing a number of blogs on specific uses of punctuation marks, especially of the comma, which is the most used and which has the most uses.

This post focuses on the use of commas with direct address, something that is practiced less frequently, but still comes up as one of those rules a writer should know. And since I have seen more and more writing, especially from my students or even in members of my writing groups who are not using it, a review is in order.

What it is

A direct address is just what it sounds like: the act of directly calling someone by name or a term like “Mike” or “Mom” or “friend” or “sir” or “family.” As in the preceding examples, the address can be a person’s name, a proper noun, a salutation, a collective noun or even a pronoun (“Hey, you!”). As masterclass.com points out, direct address is most notably used in speechwriting: it allows “the speaker to connect directly with their audience.” It is also used in prose, when one character or subject speaks to another by using their name.

Why it is used with commas

Commas are used to separate or isolate nonessential words in a sentence – nonessential words include interjections and words of direct address. These additions can create interest or increase clarification, but because they are add-ons and do not change the core meaning of the sentence, they are set off by commas.

Why its use is decreasing

June Casagrande speculates that the decrease in the use of commas with direct address stems from the “boom in informal written correspondence” created by technology with greetings like “hey” and “hello” and “hi” instead of the more formal greetings in written correspondence such as letters.

The words “hey” and “hello” and “hi” are interjections and can be punctuated as complete sentences:  “Hey.” “Hello.” “Hi!” When a noun or pronoun is added to the interjection, it becomes a direct address, and a comma is needed: “Hey, Jude.” “Hello, sir.” “Hi, friend.”

Why it is important

Proper use of the comma with direct address can prevent misunderstandings, some that are humorous (or chilling depending on your sensibility), or some that could be insulting.

For instance, the classic example appears in both the female and male form:

Let’s eat Grandma/Grandpa.

Let’s eat, Grandma/Grandpa.

The direct address occurs in the second sentence; in the first, the proper nouns Grandma/ Grandpa are the objects of the verb eat, which is humorous—unless the speaker is a cannibal.

Richard Nordquist provides an example that shows how its use could be potentially insulting:

Call me fool if you wish. (speaker calls him/herself a fool)

Call me, fool, if you wish. (speaker calls addresses a fool)

Format for comma use

The commas show that the direct address is not the subject or object of the sentence, but that the name or term is nonessential.

beginning of the sentence, use a comma after the direct address

James, your order is ready.”

end of the sentence, use a comma right before the direct address

“How are you, Mom?”

middle of the sentence: use a pair of commas surrounding the direct address

“I am not here, my friends, to discuss personalities.”

The practice of leaving out commas with direct address in informal communications will probably continue—less is more, seems to be the rule of the day. However, in formal communications, such as business and job cover letters, or in prose intended for wide publication, writers should remember and apply these fundamental rules of comma use with direct address.

(References: masterclass.com; Online Handbook for Writers; Casagrande, “A Word, Please”; Nordquist, “Introduction to Punctuation”)

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