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Direct address (or Commas III)

September 12, 2011

I received an excellent question from Kirsten yesterday, who wanted to know whether you should put a comma before someone’s name whenever you address them. Kirsten was referring specifically to point number 5 of my first post on commas, and wanted to know if it was wrong to write ‘thanks Sarah’ without the comma.

Essentially, the rule is to always use a comma when directly addressing someone.

Thanks, Kelly.

How are you, Bob?

Where are you going, David?

The rule helps us, as writers, to avoid ambiguity. Take the following sentences, for example. The comma is essential for clarity.

Should we wash up, Frank?

Should we wash up Frank?

Perhaps the rule makes more sense if we put the name first. In these examples, it’s clear a comma is needed, though you probably wouldn’t see sentences written as such—not very elegant. I do so only to highlight the direct address rule.

Kelly, thanks.

Bob, how are you?

David, where are you going?

It is easy to get confused about the direct address rule. I can see two reasons:

1) You’ll often see thanks not used with a comma before the name it’s addressed to, and it doesn’t seem to cause any great confusion. In informal contexts, why not? And now that you know the rule, you can use your better judgement for more formal situations.

2) I’ve noticed some people use ‘thanks’ when they sign off emails. And a comma may follow that ‘thanks’. For example:

Hi Kate,

Just wanted to make sure you’re still on for Friday night.

Thanks,

Sarah

In fact, that was part of the problem Kirsten had with ‘thanks, Sarah’. She thought it read as though she was Sarah, saying ‘thanks’, as indicated in the above example. Personally, I would’ve written the above email to read:

Hi Kate

Just wanted to make sure you’re still on for Friday night.

Thanks, Kate.

Sarah

Even that is awkward with ‘Kate’ repeated so close together. However, I’ve made another ‘mistake’ in the email that I wasn’t even aware of until today. Can you see what it is?

Wait for it.

Are you ready?

Okay, so who knew that there should have been a comma after ‘hi’? Grammar Girl explains why, here.

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