My work

Monday, 31 March 2014

Formal Style – Let’s eat Grandma

I recently opened and closed a book without coming anywhere near the The End because of several issues, but mostly it was this error that stopped me: In dialogue, the missing comma before the name of the addressed.

I see it all the time. You likely see it all the time, and probably don’t get your knickers in such a twist as I do. And it doesn’t annoy me in the day-to-day, when some friend or business acquaintance shoots off an email to me: Hi Roberta. I always write back though: Hi, X. I’m not correcting the sender at all – merely writing it the way it should be written so I [hopefully] don’t make the error in my novels.

I tripped across the phrase “Let’s eat Grandma” a couple years back [though it might have been “Grandpa” in that instance] in an Internet meme about how commas can save lives. I thought it hilarious . . . but since, I’ve seen it all too often in published works.

The comma must always be there. No matter if it’s clear who the addressed is. No matter if it saves a life or not. Must have comma.

Maybe the trend away from the comma in this case is because of a misinterpretation that commas are only used as “pauses”; that you stick them in a sentence where you would naturally take a breath. That’s not a bad guideline for general comma use, but it isn’t the sole purpose. As the title of this blog entry alludes, direct address commas ensure there is no ambiguity.
There are three types of direct address: Beginning, middle, and end. Samples of each, respectively:

“Bob, thank you for . . .”
“I think, Bob, we should . . .”
“See you soon, Bob.”

Here are more examples, incorrect first; corrected following:

“Hello Bob.”
“Hello Sue honey.”
“Show me dear Carol.” [If it is a demand to be shown dear Carol, it’s right. Otherwise, uh uh.]
“Yes sir.”
“I called my sister Bob.” [You did? Is your sister’s name “Bob”?]
“I called my sister Carol.” [This may or may not be wrong, depending on if there was indeed a call placed to someone’s sister named Carol. But if Carol’s the one being addressed, it’s wrong.]
“I was thinking Sue that we should go shopping.” [See how it can get mangled without those commas!]
“Happy birthday Bob.” [Just . . . no.]

“Hello, Bob.”
“Hello, Sue honey.” [“Honey” is adjectival, and thus included with her name.]
“Show me, dear Carol.” [“Dear” is adjectival; a letter salutation would be “Dear Carol:”.]
“Yes, sir.”
“I called my sister, Bob.”
“I called my sister, Carol.” [If this is spoken to Carol; if there was a call placed to sister Carol, it would be: “I called my sister Carol.” I noted it above, but it's worth two mentions.]
“I was thinking, Sue, that we should go shopping.”
“Happy birthday, Bob.”

I wish I could say this error was limited to self-pubs. Actually, it has become such a pervasive error that it even pops up in professionally edited works from established publishing houses. Rest assured, I’m not one of those people who don’t like change. I love the way the English language constantly grows and evolves. I don’t mind that some words become obsolete. I don’t mind that the serial [or Oxford] comma is used less and less [though there are times it must be used . . . but that’s for a different post].
But the direct address comma can’t go anywhere. It might not save lives, but it will save your writing from at least that form of ambiguity. And while the occasional neglect of the rule is forgivable [who doesn’t make errors?], I’ve pretty much decided that I won’t be reading any more books that neglect the rule wholesale.

So, let’s eat, Grandma.
This post was originally published on my Goodreads blog.


  1. Hah. I just noticed that all my PMs to you start with 'Hi Roberta'. Not because I don't know about the comma, but I just think you're high.

    I think that kind of mistake--the 'Hello Bob'--come from bastardizing the standard salutation 'Dear Bob', where you don't put a comma between Dear and Bob.