If you pay close attention to written greetings, you’ll notice a difference in how people punctuate them. Some include a comma after the greeting word (Hi, Bob), while others skip it (Hi Bob). Sometimes it depends on the greeting word (Hi Kate but Hello, Kate), the register (Hello honey but Hello, Dr Smith), or things like mood and whim. So what are the rules for this erratic mark?
The comma in question is called the vocative comma, because these structures are in the vocative case. The word has the same Latin root as vocation and shares its sense of ‘calling’. The vocative comma is used in many more situations than just greetings: Yes, your honour. Good night, love. Thanks, buddy. Et tu, brute? Happy new year, everyone! Tell me more, Stan.
The purpose of the vocative comma is to separate the person or thing being directly addressed from the rest of the line. That means it doesn’t always precede the addressee – it can also follow them: Anne, look at this. Ladies and gentlemen, you’re all welcome. Guys, come over here. If the addressee appears in the middle of the line, commas are added either side: It is time, my friends, to make a decision. Would you agree, folks, that this is important?
In informal or unedited writing, the vocative comma is often skipped. If you’re emailing or texting a friend or family member, it may seem unduly fussy to you to include the comma after ‘Hi’. If you’re writing a formal letter, on the other hand, leaving out the vocative comma may seem too casual. In between these two poles there is much variation, which can depend on context, personal preference, and the writer’s awareness of the options.
Your choice may also be influenced by what the other person does. If they email you first with Hello, Name, you may feel you should reply in kind, even if you wouldn’t have used a comma otherwise. This relates to the idea of accommodation in linguistics and communication theory: adjusting our style of language to be more (or less) like our interlocutor.
Grammar sticklers tend to insist on using the vocative comma in all situations where it could apply, but it’s not essential in casual exchanges. That said, you may want to consider using it if you think it will matter to your reader. If you’re inclined to omit it, be alert to the possibility of ambiguity: I’m fighting John is altogether different from I’m fighting, John.
So what’s your preference, dear reader?
Wonderful column. I now realize (or realise) that I’ve been undermining the vocative comma after hi or hello for years. A blog post I wrote in 2005, “How to e-mail a professor,” still widely read, recommends beginning an e-mail (in the absence of other guidelines) with “Hi/Hello Professor [Blank].” No comma.
And I now notice the comma in the title Hello, Dolly!
Excellent post! Many of us editor/stickler types, at least in Canada, continue to fret over whether it’s better to favour correctness or accommodation when it comes to the vocative comma. My post for The Editors’ Weekly on how to punctuate email salutations netted more comments than just about anything else I’ve ever written: https://blog.editors.ca/?p=3605.
I think your suggestion that we stay flexible, ever alert to our readers and to possible ambiguity, makes more sense than trying to settle on a single approach to all vocative constructions.
Thanks for your thoughts on this, Michael and Frances.
Michael, I just read the post you’re referring to, and I can see why it’s proved so popular. I wonder how many vocative commas were omitted under its influence!
Frances, that’s a really useful post at The Editors’ Weekly, with interesting comments too. Yes, I think flexibility is the best approach here, especially given the range of personal preferences and stylistic possibilities. (I would not give Grammarly any credence, but that’s a discussion for another day!)
Small quibble on your very interesting text: is it meaningful to talk about a vocative case in English?. We have a genitive case and residual use of an accusative. But there is no morphological trace of a vocative.
Even Old English did not have one (except possibly in Northumbria) .
Fair point, Beverley. The use of ‘O’ in direct address could be said to mark the vocative, but referring to a vocative case in English is perhaps a bit misleading.
I’ve read that it’s best to use the vocative comma to avoid ambiguity. If you say “Let’s eat, grandma”, you don’t want it to sound like “Let’s eat grandma”.
It’s definitely worth being alert to that possibility, as I note in the post. In practice the likelihood of ambiguity is quite low, since context usually makes it clear what the intended meaning is. The grandma line is a famous example, but I can’t imagine anyone genuinely misinterpreting it!
I am definitely on Team Vocative Comma! As an editor friend of mine says, it’s the difference between “What’s up, Mary?” and “What’s up Mary?”
I’m also not a fan of a greeting in place of “dear” in a salutation (“Hello Lisa,”). Many of my friends do this, however, and while I’m not enough of a sport to accommodate, I keep my thoughts to myself.
The relative complexity of ‘What’s up’ (i.e., two words instead of one) is another factor. People who sometimes use the vocative comma – who are in neither the ‘always use it’ nor the ‘never use it’ camp – are more likely to add it after ‘What’s up’ than after ‘Hi’, though grammatically the rule applies equally.
As you know, the Irish language does have a vocative case, and a vocative particle to precede it as a sort of warning that it is coming up, and one of the main publishers of Irish books, An Gúm, obviously felt that the vocative comma in use with it was in such danger that they had to highlight in their Style Guide that the comma is compulsory, to set off the person being addressed from the rest of the sentence. In fact, two are compulsory, sometimes; for example: A Sheáin, a chara, cad é mar atá tú inniu? On a related matter, I prefer that initial vocative particle ‘a’ to be in lower case for style reasons, but it is an uphill battle.
Hi Philip. Thanks for the interesting note. I hadn’t thought about the need for a double comma in those cases in Irish, though I would have used them automatically when writing something like your example.
I am a stickler for the vocative comma because it represents the slight pause that accompanies direct address in speech.
If you ask someone, “What’s the latest dope?”, the amount of time between each of the spoken words is the same. But if you ask, “What’s the latest, dope?”, there’s a slight pause before “dope”, and that pause gives the question a significantly different meaning. The pause in direct address is shown by a comma when you write it down.
The problem with putting in a comma only to avoid ambiguity means that every time you write a sentence containing a direct address, you have to stop and think about whether the sentence might be misunderstood. And even then, it’s possible that you might not notice a potential misreading, with unfortunate consequences. Better just to use the comma all the time and avoid the problem.
I don’t worry much about the accommodation issue as I figure that anyone who leaves out the vocative comma when addressing me is unlikely to notice that I’ve put one in when I reply.
Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Lee. I take your points, but I maintain my position that the vocative comma is not always necessary or even, sometimes, necessarily desirable.
The slight pause you refer to is not always present in speech. Certainly in a line like your “dope” example, it would be, because the possibility of ambiguity is significant and obvious. A pause there is mandatory. But in a phrase like “Hi John”, there’s often no pause or a pause so negligible that it may as well be non-existent. The absence or tininess of this pause in common constructions is probably one reason that the comma is often elided.
Nor do I see the flexible approach creating much of a problem. Ambiguity here is so infrequent, and so apparent when it does, that I don’t find myself delayed trying to calculate the chances of misinterpretation. But that’s me; others may pay less attention to that possibility, which is why I advised alertness at the end of the post.
Shouldn’t there be a second comma after the person or thing directly addressed?
“Hello, vocative comma,”
To seperate the salutation from the new line.
Antonio: It depends on what follows. In the title of the post, obviously not. If the phrase is at the start of a letter or email, different options are possible: another comma, a full stop, a colon, a dash, or nothing at all, depending on tone, convention, and personal preference.