What Is a Vocative Comma?

In addition to greeting a lot of people throughout my day – if I venture outside, being a freelance writer who works from home – I spend a lot of time refereeing disagreements between my young kids. Thus, it’s often important to identify which child I am addressing. Any time you address someone, be it in the written or spoken word, a vocative comma appears to signal the vocative case.

Why Is the Vocative Case Necessary?

There are times when it becomes necessary to specify the person, place or thing you’re addressing. Yes, you can address anything you please in the vocative case; it doesn’t have to be a person.

  • You, my sweet, are the most gorgeous car on the block!

Here, “my sweet” is set off by vocative commas and indicates the speaker is speaking to a car. The vocative comma should be used to clear up any confusion as to the meaning of the sentence.

  • Good morning, readers!

In this vocative comma example, the speaker is addressing the readers with a common salutation. Without the vocative comma, the sentence appears like this:

  • Good morning readers!

Although you might think you understand the meaning behind the phrase, the lack of a comma actually changes the meaning. Here, the sentence appears to just be a statement of the existence of morning readers who are good. Or perhaps the “readers” are not people, but things that you read? The meaning quickly becomes confusing, especially without context. This is because “good morning” becomes an adjective modifying “readers.” If you mean to address someone or something, make sure the comma is in place before the name. 

How Do You Use Vocative Commas?

The use of the vocative comma is fairly straightforward. If the person or thing you are addressing comes at the beginning of the sentence, place a comma after it.

  • Joe, what do you know?

If the person or thing you are addressing is named at the end of the sentence, put a comma before the name.

  • What do you know, Joe?

If you address the person or thing in the middle of the sentence, place commas before and after it.

  • What, Joe, do you know?

It’s important that you don’t accidentally create a run-on sentence when using the vocative case and comma, however. This happens when the vocative case is used with two independent clauses that would normally be split with a period, except there is no period.

  • INCORRECT: Hello, Joe, what do you know?
  • CORRECT: Hello, Joe. What do you know? 

When Should You Use Vocative Commas?

When considering when to use commas with names there are a few things to consider. The firstr is that the vocative comma creates proper grammar for phrases more likely to be found in the spoken word. It is often used at the beginning of letters and emails. Outside of correspondences, the vocative case is more prevalent in informal and creative writing.

Professional writing, such as scholarly papers or professional blogs and websites, is less likely to use the vocative case because of its informality. While the vocative case can clarify the meaning of a sentence, it is good practice to avoid its use in professional writing. 

What Meaning Does Your Comma Convey?

Although it might not seem like much, the vocative comma is essential to the meaning of certain sentences. What are your thoughts on using vocative commas before and after names? Are they necessary at the beginning of a letter or email? Share your thoughts in the comments!


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