A Word, Please: Looking at a comma’s role in a direct address

The Internet has taught us many things, most of them involving cats and robotic vacuum cleaners.

But there’s some valuable information floating around in cyberspace, too. And none more valuable than a meme conveying this shocking lesson: A poor grasp of commas can make you a cannibal.

The meme is a graphic highlighting two sentences. The first: “Let’s eat, Grandma.” The second: “Let’s eat Grandma.”

Chilling stuff.

In recent columns, I’ve talked about some of the comma’s different jobs, from separating adjectives to giving Oxford-comma fanatics something to do with their lives. But as reader Charles reminded me recently (on Twitter, no less), there’s another job of the comma so important that failing to heed it can spell doom for poor Grandma: the job of separating a direct address.

A direct address is just what it sounds like: the act of directly calling someone by name or a term like “sir” or “friend” or “lady” or “pal” or “Mom.”

Here are some examples from “Words Into Type:” “How are you, Mother?” “Come again, Uncle.” “I move, Mr. Chairman, that the meeting adjourn.” And here are a couple from the Chicago Manual of Style: “James, your order is ready.” “I am not here, my friends, to discuss personalities.”

This comma job seems simple and intuitive, but two other examples in the Chicago manual highlight just how tough these commas can be: “Hello, Ms. Phillips.” “Dear Judy, ...”

Skim through the last million or so emails you received and look at the greetings. If your name is Mary, you’ll see a lot of “Hey Mary,” “Hi Mary,” and “Hello Mary,” greetings, with a comma after the name but no comma before it.

But how many are written correctly like this? “Hey, Mary.” “Hi, Mary.” “Hello, Mary.” If you’re like me, none of the emails you get have these greetings punctuated correctly. Astonishingly, most of the correspondence I get is from fellow editors and writers. None of them, not one, gets this comma right. They use greetings punctuated like “Hey June,” instead of “Hey, June.”

Why might that be?

One of the examples above provides a clue. “Dear Judy, ...” illustrates what was once the standard greeting for correspondence. Back before email, when people wrote letters, there wasn’t as much casual conversation in print. Letters were a bigger deal, more formal than the off-the-cuff correspondences we send today. “Dear Judy,” offered just the right touch of gravitas. It became the standard way to address a personal letter.

But when technology created a boom in informal written correspondence, we started saying things like “hey” and “hello” and “hi” in our greetings, not realizing that we had completely changed the structure, and therefore the punctuation.

“Dear Judy,” is not a complete sentence or even a complete thought. It’s a noun phrase, consisting of an adjective and a noun. Just as you wouldn’t put a comma between the adjective and noun in “black cat,” you don’t put one between “dear” and “Judy.” Like “black cat,” “dear Judy” is not a complete sentence. So it wouldn’t be followed by a period.

“Hello, Judy.” is different. “Hello” is not an adjective modifying the noun. It’s an interjection, which can be punctuated as a complete sentence. “Hello.” “Hi!” “Hey.” “Hello, Judy” isn’t a noun phrase that needs more words to form a complete thought. It’s a complete thought all by itself. And the Judy part is separate. It’s a direct address, just like Grandma in “Let’s eat, Grandma.”

So if you want to follow the rules, put a comma before your recipient’s name, then follow the name with either a period, exclamation point or colon. But if you keep writing “Hello Judy,” instead of “Hello, Judy.” no one will know the difference.


JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at