Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Punctuation Point: The Direct Address Comma

Erin Brenner of Right Touch Editing provides "bite-sized lessons to improve your writing" on her engaging blog The Writing Resource. We previously heard from Erin about the serial comma, and now she offers tips for using commas for direct address.

Recently, this cartoon made the rounds of language mavens:

The comma rule depicted here is simple: use a comma with the name of a person you are directly addressing. If the name comes first, it is followed by a comma:

Children, please stop jumping on the beds.

If the name comes at the end of the sentence, the comma precedes the name:

Stop jumping on the beds, boys.

And if the name (or names) comes in the middle of the sentence, surround it with commas:

What I said, Sean and Duncan, was to stop jumping on the beds!

As you can see from my example sentences (other than my children's habit of jumping on the beds), you don't have to use a proper name to address someone. A title works, even an informal one like boys.

In the cartoon, the comma changes the sentence from a bothersome one about cannibalism to a friendlier one about a grandchild encouraging Grandpa to have something to eat (as long as it's not Grandma). Got it? Good. Let's try a quick quiz.

  1. Arthur you really should consider running for office again.
  2. When Arthur ran last time, he lost by just a few votes.
  3. Don't you want to go the distance Arthur?
  4. Right now Arthur is the best time to campaign.
  5. Just because the election is two years away is no reason for Arthur not to start knocking on doors.

Give it a whirl, and check back in the comments below for the correct answers. In the meantime, if you have any questions or comments, post them below!


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Erin Brenner is the founder of Right Touch Editing, a customizable editing service. She has been an editing professional for over 15 years and is sought after for her expertise in language mechanics. She works on a variety of media in all levels of editing. In addition, she provides bite-sized lessons to improve your writing on her blog The Writing Resource and is the editor of Copyediting.com, which offers advice and training for those who edit copy. Follow her on Twitter at @ebrenner or on Facebook. Click here to read more articles by Erin Brenner.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday April 22nd 2010, 9:48 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I had thought this was one of the easier comma rules until I started reading some of the more recent posting on the internet. Is it due to texting, and leaving out punctuation marks to save time and space?

Whatever it is, it can make a major difference in what we understand a sentence to mean, as shown in the examples.

There's another comma lapse due to space saving that results in the puzzling, "Slow children crossing" signs across North America. Not the same rule as the 'direct address, but called, perhaps, imperative separation.

I wonder when punctuation marks got invented, at what stage in our writing. Who was it who thought of the comma? (And the ?)
Thursday April 22nd 2010, 2:03 PM
Comment by: Brittany L. (Brownfield, ME)
I love this simple, yet important lesson! And as someone mentioned, 'slow, children crossing,' would be way better than 'slow children crossing.' Our family gets a lot of mileage out of those poor, slow children.
Thursday April 22nd 2010, 10:30 PM
Comment by: Frank C. (Issaquah, WA)
Where are the answers to the 5 quiz sentences? She says check in the comments below for the correct answers,but I don't see any answers?? HELP!
Friday April 23rd 2010, 12:23 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Ask and ye shall receive! Here are the quiz answers:

1. Arthur, you really should consider running for office again.
2. When Arthur ran last time, he lost by just a few votes.
3. Don't you want to go the distance, Arthur?
4. Right now, Arthur, is the best time to campaign.
5. Just because the election is two years away is no reason for Arthur not to start knocking on doors.
Friday April 23rd 2010, 2:42 AM
Comment by: Thanneermalai N. (Bangalore India)
This information was useful. I am gonna share it with my friends

Thanks
Friday April 23rd 2010, 5:53 PM
Comment by: Lou (Round Rock, TX)
Good exercise. I'd like to know what is your take on a reltively recent trend to drop commas even when they, in my opinion, correctly enhance the meaning and cadence?
Saturday April 24th 2010, 2:12 PM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Lou, it drives me absolutely crazy to find commas missing in text! Commas do enhance meaning and cadence and are not something I think we should be casual about. Clients have told me more than once that they learn a lot about commas after I've edited their work.

The trouble is, I believe, that people generally don't understand all that the humble comma can do. There are something like nine different uses for this punctuation mark. Nine! (I'll eventually cover them all, but maybe not one after another.) Is it any wonder, then, that sometimes a writer doesn't know that a comma is need and doesn't add it?
Tuesday June 21st 2011, 10:31 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Just so you know we are paying attention: the verb "need" requires past tense (fifth word from the end of your last comment).
Wednesday June 22nd 2011, 8:38 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
You're right, Roger. Now I'm itching to go back and fix it, but I don't think I can modify my comments. Drat!
Thursday June 23rd 2011, 10:17 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Hmmm, just so you know, Erin, that we are really, really paying attention, isn't it the past participle that is needed (is needed... LOL)?

It's passive voice, present tense, though?
Friday June 24th 2011, 1:46 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Thank you for that, Jane B!
Friday June 24th 2011, 9:05 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Roger, I've been so long away from the correct terms, that I was confused for awhile!

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