Remember the Comma, Writer!
by Owen Fourie
You are checking your email. Assuming for a moment that your name is Sam, most of the greetings will say, “Hi Sam.”
One of the emails says it differently: “Hi, Sam.” You ask yourself why there should be a comma before your name. Seeing the email is from your English Honors cousin, you groan as you realize there is a reason for that comma.
Of course, when it comes to emails, especially informal communications, it doesn’t really matter so much about omitting the comma before the name in your greeting.
Correctly, though, it should be there, and you should bear this in mind in your writing, particularly in more formal situations such as the following:
- Hello, Justin James.
- Good morning, Mr. Jones.
- Congratulations, Tina Thomas.
A comma before a name makes your meaning clear
When you address people directly in writing, whether in the greeting or in the body of your message, and you use a name, the name must be preceded by a comma.
Perhaps the following instance will illustrate this point. Here is the text of a deleted spam comment on this blog:
What an interesting text. I am really impressed. Keep writing mate
The term “mate” is used as a name here, just as “friend” or “sir” or “madam” or “doctor” would serve as a name or a title.
Although you can understand the message without the missing comma, the strict interpretation would be that I should keep on writing the word mate. Why would I want to do that? A comma before “mate” would preclude this interpretation.
Gasp! Did you really mean that?
In the following instances, you will see the names of the people being addressed, but the omission of the comma before their names gives each of these statements a meaning that was not intended.
If you are writing a story, you must let your characters say what they mean, unless some subtle humor is intended.
- I think you should stop eating Aaron. (Leave the rest of him for me.)
- Have you finished baking Cassie? (I can’t wait to know how she tastes.)
- Why are you cooking Kyla? (Russ is meatier.)
- Should we carry on mowing Darren? (instead of the lawn)
- I think they are greasing Russ. (then they’ll roll him in chicken feathers)
The person who is addressed in these statements could be the reader or another person, but a comma before the name is important to show
- that you are talking to the named person;
- that you are not talking about the named person.
Without the comma, we are witnesses to the murderous and cannibalistic rampage in which Aaron is eaten, Cassie baked, Kyla cooked, and Darren mowed (down), while Russ escapes with mere humiliation.
A comma placed before their names shows us that these people are actually being addressed about nonviolent activities.
- I think you should stop eating, Aaron.
- Have you finished baking, Cassie?
- Why are you cooking, Kyla? I thought we were ordering pizza.
- Should we carry on mowing, Darren?
- I think they are greasing, Russ.
No comma before the name
In conventional letter writing, where you are directly addressing somebody, you do not place a comma before that person’s name in a greeting that takes this form:
- Dear Tina—place a comma after the name in less formal address: Dear Tina, followed by the beginning of your introductory paragraph;
- Dear Tina Thomas—place a colon after the name in formal address: Dear Tina Thomas: followed by the beginning of your introductory paragraph;
- Dear Miss Thomas
By the way, the expression “dear” does not carry any sentimental value. It is simply a courteous introduction.
With the guidance you have received in this article and the
previous one, “12 Major Comma Uses Explained,” your writing
Hi, Student Writer,
If you have any questions about particular problems with
punctuation, ask here for clarification. Your comments,
observations, and questions are welcome.
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