Comma Tip: Direct Address

(Happy New Year, Dear Reader!)

Use a comma to indicate direct address. What’s direct address? It’s simply the use of someone’s name, or a stand-in for a name, in speaking to him or her:

Happy anniversary, Mark!

Why, darling, you shouldn’t have.

Well, folks, we’d better get going.

In the sentence above, if you were to drop the comma, well might momentarily be read as an adjective, as in healthy, not sick, people.

Say, Joe, why did you do that?

Here, say might momentarily be read as a command to the reader (with a missing you understood as the subject) to speak the name.

The good sense of this rule becomes especially clear when you run across an amusing example of the perils of ignoring it. I saw this beauty on a hand-printed flyer:

Eat people, it is what gives us the energy to live.

Yikes! Soylent Green, anyone? You can see how dropping that comma before a term of direct address can lead to a serious misunderstanding! Most likely, the writer does not want us to eat people but is imploring us, the people, to eat:

Eat, people! It is what gives us the energy to live!

Notice also that I rewrote the sentence as two. Technically, the original sentence is a run-on. Specifically, it’s a comma splice: the improper joining of two independent clauses. Independent clauses should be joined with a semicolon, or with a comma and a conjunction. In this case, it would be a semicolon:

Eat, people; it is what gives us the energy to live!

However, I suspect you’ll agree that the semicolon feels cumbersome here. Sometimes you can get away with a splice (see Strunk and White), but in this case, why go there when using two sentences works so well? But I’m digressing into another lesson . . . and I think this example sentence has had all the criticism it can take for today!