Avoiding Common Punctuation Errors Part 1: The Vocative Comma

Commas Save Lives

Your story is written.  You have compelling characters, a rich setting, deep symbolism, and a perfectly twisty plot.  You're ready to share your creation with the world.  But take a moment to consider the underrated art of punctuation.

Punctuation isn't a ridiculous torture device invented by English teachers.  It's a guide for your reader.  Used properly, those little commas, periods, and quotation marks help your reader interpret your words correctly the first time.  After all, you masterpiece isn't a masterpiece if people keep getting tripped up by punctuation (or lack thereof). 

Today we'll consider just one little rule, simple but often ignored.

The Vocative Comma:
When you address someone or something directly, use commas to set off the name or title. 
    Your car is ready, Mr. President.
    Alex, turn off that horrid music.
    At the end of the day, folks, the only thing that matters is how many people we help.
    Stupid computer, can't you just work right this once?

When authors forget this rule, at best the result is clunky or awkward.  At worst, it creates an entirely different meaning.  Here's the most classic example: 
           Let's eat Grandpa.
           Let's eat, Grandpa.
If your character is a heartless cannibal, the first version is fine.  Otherwise, you need the comma.

More Examples:

I don’t know Mom (character denying any familiarity with his mother)
I don't know, Mom (character telling his mother that he doesn't know something)

You are Sigmund.  (Revealing to an amnesiac that his name is Sigmund)
You are, Sigmund.  (Answering Sigmund's question, "Who's the crazy one here?")

Children put your toys away.  (You have very young servants who clean up your toys for you)
Children, put your toys away.  (You're telling your kids to put their toys away). 

I killed, John (character admitting to John that he killed someone)
I killed John (character admitting to the police that he murdered John)

You called me father (I'm not really your father, but it touches me that you consider me like a father.)
You called me, father.  (You're my dad, and I'm returning your phone call.)

I'll see you in February June. (You're a little confused about dates)
I'll see you in February, June (You have an appointment in February with your friend June)

And that man is the truth. (You're apparently looking at the god of truth or something)
And that, man, is the truth. (Man, I'm telling the truth)

Don't marry, Alice (Alice, stay single!  Marriage is for the birds.)
Don't marry Alice (Alice is bad news.  Don't marry her.  Marry me instead.)

Conversely, if you use the comma to set off a name or title when you're not addressing someone directly, you get results like this:

Those irresponsible cows!  Why won't they keep their dogs under control?

If you want your masterpiece to shine, pay attention to punctuation, and join me next month for more common punctuation errors.

Avoiding Incorrect Punctuation Pt 2:  Commas and Periods in Dialogue

Melinda Brasher wrote the cover story in this month's edition of Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show.  Check out the artwork here.  She loves writing, but can't read anymore without unintentionally editing, and loves a good punctuation or grammar joke.  Nerd power!  Check out her author page at Amazon.


Anonymous said...

Melinda, thank you for the examples of correct punctuation.

Joan Y. Edwards said...

Dear Melinda, what a fun and informative article. Thank you.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

I just had to read this. I mean, anyone who know the term "vocative comma" has to be an expert worth listening to. And, of course, I admit to being a bit of a comma nut! Thank you, Melinda.
Carolyn Howard-Johnson
Loving helping writers get read with my HowToDoItFrugally series of books for writers including the multi award-winning (newly formatted!) second edition of The Frugal Editor (e-book only at least for a while!) http://bit.ly/FrugalEditorKind

Magdalena Ball said...

Great visuals, Melinda, and you make your point very well. Presenting grammar as a critical guide for readers puts it in a much better light.

Melinda Brasher said...

I've read three books lately that consistently forget this comma, sometimes with disastrous results. I hope those authors have loving friends who direct them to this or another similar article.

Karen Cioffi said...

Melinda, excellent post on the importance of using the comma where needed. I LOVE your examples!

anthony stemke said...

A British fellow I know calls it the "Oxford comma". A great book is "Eats Shoots and Leaves by Lynn Truss. A comma after "Eats" makes it sound like a panda has a meal, then pulls out a weapon, shoots it and subsequently departs.Truss' book offers many humorous examples of grammatical errors.

Melinda Brasher said...

The Oxford Comma is a fun debate. It's the comma before "and" in a list, like in the classic example of a book dedication: "I'd like to thank my parents, Susan B Anthony, and God." There's an Oxford comma before "and," making it clear that you're thanking God, you're thanking Susan B. Anthony, and you're thanking your parents. If you omit the Oxford comma, you get, "I'd like to thank my parents, Susan B. Anthony and God." This makes it sound like your parents are Susan B. Anthony and God. Probably not what you meant. Detractors of the Oxford comma argue that it usually doesn't create such confusion, and too many commas slow down the pace of reading. This is the kind of debate linguistic nerds like me thrive on.

And yes, "Eats Shoots and Leaves" is a GREAT book. Thanks for recommending it. I second that recommendation.

Mary Jo Guglielmo said...

Great comic examples Melinda. Thanks.

Shirley Corder said...

I enjoyed this Melinda. Fun as well as being a good reminder.

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