Writing Wednesdays – the Vocative Comma

I will admit that I tend to over-comma. I can’t help it. It’s just such a handy little thing. It tells a reader when to stop and take a breath, it separates different thoughts, itemizes lists, and just generally helps give structure and meaning to all the little words floating around within a sentence. Commas are going out of fashion – any that can be left out generally are, as well as many that shouldn’t be. But there is one type of comma that should NOT be left out. Ever. I will fight for it to my dying day (and do, frequently, while proofreading). It is, of course, the vocative comma.

The vocative comma (which is a lovely name, by the way) is the comma that separates out the words, phrases, or names that are being directly addressed. Let’s take a look at some examples:

“Let’s eat children!” means that we are about to consume children.

“Let’s eat, children!” means that we are inviting the children to eat with us.

“Do you know Jack?” is asking if you are familiar with a person named Jack – or perhaps is asking if you know anything at all.

“Do you know, Jack?” is asking Jack if he knows something.

“How are you my friend?” is asking in what way you have behaved as a friend.

“How are you, my friend?” is asking your friend how he or she is doing.

I hope I’ve shown why it’s important to use the vocative comma. Here is another way that it is used. Let’s say you are writing to your significant other, who you call “my little muffin cakes”. A correct sentence would look something like this: “You would never believe, my little muffin cakes, how much I miss you.” (Well, correct but slightly nauseating). The “my little muffin cakes” is surrounded by commas, to indicate that this is the person you are speaking to.

Another example like this is from Shakespeare’s Henry IV: “Oh, gentlemen, life is short.” He is talking directly to the gentlemen, so again, that is surrounded by commas.

This also holds true if you are addressing an idea or inanimate object. “And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.” (John Donne) The last part is addressing death itself, so there is a comma after death. If you aren’t sure whether a thing is being spoken to, try inserting a name and see if that makes helps. “Bob, thou shalt die.” While not necessarily comforting to Bob, the sentence works grammatically and makes sense. Here’s another: “Oh, vocative comma, how I adore the clarity you bring to the written word.” The sentence also would make sense if you put our old friend Bob back in: “Oh, Bob, how I adore the clarity you bring to the written word.”

So, the bottom line is that anytime you are talking directly to someone or something and call them by name, you need to use vocative commas. This includes “hey, you” although that specific instance seem to be falling out of the common usage (which doesn’t make it correct!).

Do you use the vocative comma? Find it confusing? Are you an under-comma-er or an over-comma-er?

8 thoughts on “Writing Wednesdays – the Vocative Comma

  1. Christine H says:

    Long-time reader, first-time commenter!

    I, too, can be comma-happy! I am a particular champion of the Oxford comma, which is the comma that goes before the “and” or the “or” in a list of items. Many people prefer not to bother with it, and would write something like, “pancakes, eggs and toast.” I vote for “pancakes, eggs, and toast,” because what if one of the items in the list is a pairing that also includes the word “and” (like “bacon and eggs” in the middle of your list)? Without the Oxford comma to keep everybody organized, you might end up with things like, “pancakes, bacon and eggs and toast,” and that just looks silly. So I award a billion points for the beautiful Oxford comma in the subtitle of your blog: “Reviews, Recommendations, and Proofreading”! 🙂

    … And now, for some reason, I’m craving breakfast food.

    • lectorsbooks says:

      Commas are so neat and tidy – they just make my heart sing! And yes, I’m now craving pancakes, bacon, eggs, and toast as well. Thanks a lot.

  2. Cullen says:

    I have a question about comma placement. Imagine that someone said, “I thoroughly enjoy listening to Justin Bieber’s music.” Would my reply “Do you, though?” be grammatically correct? The reply is supposed to be the same as “Do you really?” or “Yeah, but do you?” The reply is meant to signify doubt in the other person’s opinion, as if no one could possibly have that opinion. Specifically, I want to know whether or not the comma before “though” is alright.

  3. Lee says:

    Should I use a comma in this statement – “Happy Birthday, John” or should it be “Happy Birthday John”?

  4. Harry Nicholson says:

    Thank you for that clarity, Lector. I recently proofed a friend’s novel and sent him dozens of instances of missing vocative commas. But my confidence was shaken when I found lapses in Stephen Fry’s novel, ‘Making History’. An example on p343 beginning a chapter:
    ‘I need you Steve. You have to help me find a library.’
    Steve replies: ‘Jesus man, what has gotten into you?’

    I find two missing vocative commas – but I’m no longer so sure.

    harry Nicholson

    • lectorsbooks says:

      I would most certainly put in vocative commas in both of those instances! Sadly some editors and writers are considering the vocative comma a stylistic choice as opposed to a hard and fast rule. It is true that commas have more flexibility than other punctuation marks about whether or not they “need” to be used, but I don’t consider the vocative comma to be an optional case. Seeing two in a row like that would make me crazy!

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