Knowledge Bite

The importance of the vocative comma

The vocative comma (sometimes known as ‘comma of direct address’) is an important little piece of punctuation that is often omitted in manuscripts that arrive on my desk.

The vocative comma is used whenever someone is being directly addressed by name: ‘Happy birthday, Sam!’, ‘How are you, Bob?’, ‘Sally, what time is it?’. In casual conversation on social media, for example, or in text messages, this comma is often omitted. However, when writing for publication it’s vital you use the vocative comma correctly.

I use the same example in every manuscript to illustrate how important a vocative comma can be. It might seem less important in my ‘Happy birthday, Sam!’ example above as even without the comma it’s easily understandable. But take a look at the example below.

‘Let’s eat Grandma!’

‘Let’s eat, Grandma!’

The first suggests, somewhat worryingly, that the speaker is suggesting their grandmother be eaten. The second is an invitation to their grandmother to join them for a meal.

Such a small thing as comma might seem not worth spending time worrying about, but omitting it will at best look sloppy to a discerning reader and at worst completely change the meaning of your sentence to something unintentionally comical or rude.

Remember: when you are addressing someone by name, don’t forget the vocative comma.