comma, vocative: a birthday experiment

Last week, Allan Metcalf wrote about commas disappearing from around vocatives. A vocative is a direct address to a person, such as the reader in the following examples:
Reader, let me tell you something about commas.
Let me tell you something about commas, reader.
If you think, reader, that I'm not going to tell you about commas, think again.
I used commas here to separate reader from the rest of the sentence, because reader isn't a grammatical part of the sentence. It floats on a different plane from the subject and predicate.

Metcalf was noticing that many people were not using commas, and I got a good dose of noticing that today when I received birthday messages on social media. What I wondered was: do British people use the comma less?

I have good reason for asking the question with that particular bias. Americans use a lot more commas than Brits do. Like that first comma in the blog post (Last week, ). Americans are much more likely to put a comma after an adverbial phrase at the start of the sentence. In the Corpus of Global Web-based English, the American texts have about 10% more commas than the British ones.

So here's my little experiment.

Research question: Is there a national difference in vocative comma usage?

Hypothesis: American birthday greetings have more vocative commas than British ones.

Data and Method: I went through the birthday greetings I received today on Facebook, Twitter, and email and looked for ones that were:
  • from an American or a Briton (I discounted any that were by people who were originally from another country)
  • with a vocative: Happy birthday(,) Lynne was the most common form. 
I then counted how many did and did not have commas from each country.

Results: My hypothesis is supported. Though the comma is at risk in both places, it seems stronger in the US, where 61% of the vocatives had commas, versus 27% in the UK.

comma none
UK 8 22
US 14 9

Caveats: I have not accounted for age, level of education, or profession here. I'd guess that my British friends on Facebook are younger on average, just because I'm friends with more former students from the UK and they were students more recently than any US students I've had. That said, there weren't all that many former students using vocatives.

You know the birthday celebrations are getting rowdy when someone starts counting the commas.


  1. Happy birthday Lynne!

    Although I go though phases of using more commas and using them less, I would never go through a phase of putting a comma there.

    Unlike your reader sentences, there's a quasi-syntactic feel to it. Happy birthday feels sort of verb-y and Lynne feels like its complement.

    There's also the consideration that the wish is expressed in a single intonational unit.

    Mind you, I would punctuate I wish you, Lynne, a very happy birthday.

    I would also — probably — use a comma if the 'vocative' was at the start of an utterance and acting as an attention-grabber. For some reason the example that springs to mind is

    Sam, you made the pants too long.

    1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    2. The example that springs to MY mind is:
      Reader, I married him.


  2. I'm a 56-year old American who was taught to always separate a direct address by a comma. Happy birthday, Lynne! I correspond via email with colleagues in England and Scotland and notice much less punctuation in general.

  3. Like Anonymous, I'm an American who didn't learn the term "vocative."
    I was taught that what you call a vocative was a "nominative of direct address," and it was separated by a comma, or commas, from the rest of the sentence.
    I haven't noticed such commas disappearing on this side of the pond.

  4. I tend to use a lot more commas than the average Brit (my mum, for example, barely bothers with full stops, never mind something as whimsical as a comma, which is why post cards & text messages from her read like some kind of cryptic telegram). But even I don't bother with a comma in a happy birthday greeting. I think it's because I'm not a linguist, but rather a bit of a writer and actor (amateur, darling) so use commas as a sense of pacing as much as separation of meaning. And a birthday greeting is a fast-paced statement. Putting a comma pause in suddenly transforms a friendly phrase into something a little odd.
    Anyway, "Happy Birthday > Lynne"

  5. I would put a comma in a written card, but not on social media or a text, I suspect. So maybe the comma is only at risk in a more informal register (and I would say Britons use that more frequently than Americans).

    Aged 7 I had a teacher who would insist we greeted her every morning with a group "Good morning comma Mrs Richardson"... Hope you have a lovely birthday.

  6. I (UK) often start emails with "Hello, X" or "Hi, X" but the replies usually begin "Hi Kate". I don't remember being taught to do this, it just feels right.

    Happy birthday, Lynne!

  7. Great, blog, however, start, enjoying, birthdays, more.

  8. While not quite the same, this is similar to a phenomenon that's really started to annoy me over the past few years - and I'd be really interested to know if it's a BrE vs AmE issue.

    The issue is the use of commas to surround a proper name in inappropriate (for me, at least) context. Compare these sentences.

    * The actor Gwynneth Paltrow received an Oscar.
    * The actor, Gwynneth Paltrow, received an Oscar.

    To me, the first is correct - "Gwynneth Paltrow" is the subject of the sentence. The second implies that "The actor" is somehow enough to identify the recipient of the award and her name is just a piece of extra information (i.e. the real sentence here is "The actor received an Oscar").

    However, it's becoming more and more common to see the second in print. And, even more strangely, I've started hearing it on the radio and in TV voiceovers - as though someone's had their script written with the commas and is then pronouncing them! Which just sounds really odd.

    Any thoughts?

    1. That's how I was taught to do it in school in America in the 90s. It felt so ridiculous that I only ever did that for a handful of exercises in 6th grade.

    2. I've been searching the internet for someone who's noticed this too - isn't it an incredibly annoying phenomenon? I've only really noticed it over the past year or so but it seems suddenly ubiquitous, including, sadly, on the BBC; I don't know if there was a change in teaching in a certain year and that generation is now occupying roles writing for websites and newspapers.

      I think your first example is more correct but I don't mind the second, except it only works if there's a context referring to an actor to begin with, to which Paltrow's name is simply additional information. What are worse - and what I've noticed often - are sentences without the definite article at all, for example:

      Prime Minister, Theresa May, announced today.

      instead of

      Prime Minister Theresa May announced today.
      The Prime Minister, Theresa May, announced today.

      You might think that's a daft example but it's exactly the (conspicuously ridiculous) sentence structure I see *all the time*, and it's driving me crazy.

    3. I've seen this fairly often in British news reports over the past few years. My feeling is that it's a form of hypercorrection by people who remember the requirement for parenthetical commas in "Gwynneth Paltrow, the actor, received an Oscar" and retain them when reversing the order to "The actor, Gwynneth Paltrow, received an Oscar". I agree with the previous Anonymous (I must sign up) that the latter would only be correct in a rather unlikely context that previously mentioned an unnamed actor, as in "For (named movie) both composer and leading lady received awards. The actor, Gwynneth Paltrow, received an Oscar, while the composer, WA Mozart, was awarded a Grammy". To my mind the 'The Prime Minister' example works only because there is only one Prime Minister, so her name is additional information, while there are quite a few actors so the name will always be essential.

  9. 44 year old BrE native speaker here and I do the commas. All the commas. I'm an editor who also does localisation from AmE to BrE, though, so I wonder if I've been kept keen on commas by seeing so many in AmE, so they haven't drifted off as they have for other people. Interesting stuff!

    1. 72-year-old BrE native here, and I would have inserted a comma after 'here', as I did above, as well as hyphenating the age phrase. Slight evidence for punctuation use diminishing over time. (As an aside, I find I can't read Dickens, because his too-frequent-by-modern-standards commas stop me reading with fluency and I can't get into the books.)

  10. Happy birthday Lynne.

    Yes, another Brit with no commas. Apart from my personal birthday wishes, I've nothing to add to young Mr. Crosbie's post. I can't imagine saying or writing I wish you, Lynne, a very happy birthday but that's how I'd punctuate it. I might go for more emphasis in Sam, you've made the pants too long. depending on how important the second part is Sam! Quick, the house is on fire! for example but it works just fine with a comma for something less vital.

    I think, without the fancy grammar terms, when it's written, the name isn't apart from the rest of the phrase, at least in my mind. Unlike Kate Bunting I wouldn't start a letter Dear, Lynne, I'd start Dear Lynne, so my start of a birthday message follows the same pattern (even if I'm lazy and just write it over a pre-printed greeting in a card).

    Do you think it's possible, maybe even likely, as most people change to sending their best wishes via Fb and Twitter and it's more directly addressed we'll lose the habit of saying the name? If we were face to face and in an office I'd probably say it across the room with your name. But last week I was out with a friend and his wife in a smaller group. We're close enough we're hugging friends and it was happy birthday in a greeting hug with no name. Where does posting on your wall, where it can't be misdirected come on that spectrum? Posting to your twitter?

    1. I don't think Kate would write, Dear, Lynne. I don't know that anyone would. Hello, Lynne, is the example she used, and that's very different.

  11. Separated by a comma language? Happy birthday, Lynne!

  12. First of all, Happy Birthday, Lynne!

    This is an interesting observation, and as I have a birthday coming up soon and friends in both the US and UK, I will now have no choice but to keep a running count of comma usage. I know that Brits use fewer commas, but I have also noticed that several American friends have given up on using commas for vocatives. I think the use of smartphones has led to lazier punctuation just because it's a pain to type on those little keys!

  13. I don't think I was ever taught to use a comma in that situation. On the other hand, whatever I may have been taught, I do not use a comma in any other grammatical situation either. Rather, a comma represents a pause in speech.

    I would never say "Happy Birthday Lynne" with a pause, so I wouldn't write it with a comma. The same is of course true of other congratulatory messages, and also of greetings: "Hello Lynne". But vocatives generally I definitely would say with a pause. I suspect this means that in my internal grammar the name in a greeting is not really a vocative.

    You people who do put a comma in, do you also put a pause in when you say it? i.e. do you have a different internal grammar than me, or do you simply punctuate differently?

    1. From the US here. In elementary school, our rule of thumb was that when reading aloud, you do not need a comma to pause, but you always pause when there is a comma. It doesn't need to be a huge pause or anything. I put a comma between Happy Birthday and Lynne, and I hear a slight pause between Happy Birthday and Lynne. It's only a fraction of a second, but it's there.

      However, I don't think a comma's sole responsibility is telling a speaker where they should pause. The grammatical role of the comma is much more important than spoken (or rather, not spoken) pauses.

    2. Surely 'the grammatical role of the comma' is to assist a reader in parsing a sentence in the way the writer meant, which is why it is more difficult to read unpunctuated text because the reader has to garner parsing clues from text elements. A comma will often coincide with a pause when text is read aloud, because pausing is a part of the way we indicate parsing, but that is not their purpose; if it were, surely we would find it unnecessary to punctuate text that was not meant to be spoken. The other parts when speaking are stress and intonation, which differ for commas and full stops (and ? and !) (ignoring up-speak) and usually for colons and semicolons.

  14. David Marjanović04 October, 2016 11:45

    Nonnative speaker. For me, a comma usually does not represent a pause – it represents complex intonational phenomena.* In short, I hear where the commas go; and there definitely is one in front of a vocative, as in "commas are important, people".

    Where the intonation is unclear or variable is exactly where the comma rules of different languages differ. Insertions into a sentence are surrounded by commas – but relative clauses are exempt from this in English; they're not in German (e.g. "the one, who did this, is...").

    * I struggle to describe them. Higher pitch on the stressed syllable of the preceding word and lower pitch on the stressed syllable of the following word? Maybe? – In contrast, the pitch goes down before a semicolon.

  15. I think this is just a ploy to show off his many friends you have who send you birthday wishes! :D

  16. "Comma represents a pause in speech" is a succinct symbol of everything wrong in grammar teaching. That and "nouns are persons, places, or things" and "verbs are action words".

    David's got it right--commas are for signal(l)ing prosodic (intonational) boundaries, which signal certain kinds of grammatical boundaries.

    If you read aloud

    Kathy murders Lynne (i.e. Kathy caused Lynne to be dead)

    (not a nice sentence, but the second verb I thought of with the right syllable/stress pattern. The first was 'hog-tie'.)

    and compare to

    Kathy murders, Lynne (i.e. Hey, Lynne did you hear that Cathy is a murderer?) can hear the difference.

    There's no pause in the comma one. There's an intonational shift, and it's the same one as in 'happy birthday (,) Lynne'

    "Put a comma where you pause" is the bane of my student-essay-marking existence. Please help kill it!

    1. Agreed there's an intonational shift in Kathy murders, Lynne. But I can easily say Happy birthday Lynne with no such shift.

    2. I could read

      It looks as if Lynne (a character in the fiction being discussed) is going to steal Kathy's handsome suitor. But in the next chapter Kathy murders Lynne

      using exactly the same intonation and lack of pause as in

      Happy birthday Lynne.

      It's a case of the difference between an extended text and an isolated sentence. To say out of nowhere

      Kathy murders Lynne

      involves at least secondary emphasis of each words. I would almost certainly place the main stress (and falling intonation) on LYNNE.

      Reading the extended text, I would probably put the same sort of stress and intonation on MURders as I would on BIRTHday.

    3. Indeed, I thought when I was writing that a pause was not quite the correct word, but I couldn't think how better to describe it. I think there is a small pause in there as well as the change in intonation.

      But you have answered my question. I would never write a comma in "Happy Birthday Lynne", because I would never change the intonation there. You, as someone who writes a comma there also speak what I wrongly described as a pause.

    4. If I say "Happy birthday week" I get a different intonational pattern than if I say "Happy birthday, Mark". There's an emphasis on the name that I don't think would be there for other non-vocative things that could go after 'HB'. But, as we say in America, your mileage may vary.

    5. I can say Happy birthday Mark with a variety of intonation patterns. But my instinctive first choice is identical to that of Happy birthday week.

    6. I think you may have just hit the nail on the head here, because I'd definitely say "Happy birthday, Cat" (my best friend's name) slightly differently than I'd say "happy birthday cat" -- I can't say the second one without it bringing to mind a little dancing cat with a birthday hat on (sort of a cartoon cat, because he's black and up on his two back paws and sort of a step above being a stick figure, and I can see it so plainly that if I was any kind of an artist I could draw it -- and I can't say the phrase minus the comma and think of anything but).

      I suspect the "comma represents a pause in speech" comes from teaching it to young children -- I think I first learned it about in 4th grade (British year 5, around age 9 or 10). Calling it a prosodic intonational boundary might be more correct, but would possibly go over their heads, also. I'm pretty sure it would have been over mine.

  17. I've learned, with difficulty but enjoyment, to put only one space after a period while typing. I've also tried to emulate the British dropping of periods after common abbreviations (Mr Mrs Dr Prof PO Box, etc.) but just cannot. It doesn't look right, sound right, or feel right. In this case, too, Happy Birthday Lynne without the commas just doesn't look right (AmE old guy with linguistics training). -Jan in NH

  18. Yes, I agree with Katkins.. this entire post is a humblebrag!!;)

  19. Nice shiny new blog Lynne!
    Nice, shiny new blog, Lynne!
    (Happy Birthday)
    (BrE speaker. I have no idea what I do with commas.)

  20. You may hate the "commas show me wear to put pauses" but it was the first thing I (BrE) was taught, along with something about the length of the pause indicated by a comma, semi-colon and full stop. I have, later, learnt other things about commas, which I wouldn't have thought about as signalling prosodic boundaries and grammatical boundaries but I agree it's a more complete, probably even a complete, description of their function. (The caveat is there not because I doubt you, just because I'm rushed for time and absorbing what a prosodic boundary is - it includes pauses, tone shifts and those changes of pacing, etc. to indicate 'something different' if I'm understanding it properly?)

    Perhaps it's because I'm a scientist - I'm used to people coming back (repeatedly) and saying "Well, what we taught you before was close, but not quite right, we want to extend that like this..." - but I don't recall a problem with extending my rules about what commas do. But a lot of people pick up their first lesson and stick with it and refuse to extend and complicate it. Although it's worrying if a fair number of your students do that.

  21. "Eats, shoots and leaves" and all that ... I tend not to use a comma in greetings ("Happy birthday, by the way" is different), but I note that an email today from an American friend began "Hi, Martin". I replied "Hi Russ" (that being his name). So I suppose that proves your point, Lynne.

  22. Happy Birthday Lynne, but look, no comma. BrEng speaker in my late 60s and I don't think I would ever have a used a comma to mark a vocative, or, for that matter, referred to the vocative outside Latin grammar, where I can remember that in some declensions there was a different word ending in the vocative. Nor do I remember any teacher ever saying there should be a comma in that position. I like the term 'prosodic boundary' though. I think I'd probably say that a comma should mark a prosodic pause rather than just any old pause.

    I do, though, David Marjanović tend to put commas round relative clauses as I think it makes them easier to read.

    I get the impression, but where from I do not know, that the AmEng approach to punctuation is slightly more prescriptive than ours ever was, even in the old days when we were taught grammar more emphatically. Nevertheless, I can remember being taught that a word like 'however' or the 'nevertheless' at the beginning of this sentence should be separated from the rest of the sentence with a comma. I can sort of remember being told that 'and' and 'but' did not ned to be punctuated because being conjunctions, their presence marked what today we are calling a prosodic boundary.

  23. Happy birthday Lynne! But, "Reader, I married him". Or "Lynne, I think you raise an interesting question".

  24. This comment has been removed by the author.

  25. Happy birthday Lynne!

    For a long time I would use lots of commas in sentences but I remember going off them in the past few years, as a result of something I read that I don't now remember.

    That said, around about the same time I embraced the Oxford Comma so it sort of balances out.

  26. Happy birthday, O Lynne!


    As I (non-expertly) understand things:

    The actor, Gwynneth Paltrow received an Oscar. [No pause at comma when spoken]

    = Gwynneth Paltrow (who is an actor) received an Oscar.

    The actor, Gwynneth Paltrow, received an Oscar. [Pause at commas]

    = The actor (who is Gwynneth Paltrow) received an Oscar.

  27. A technical point.

    I subscribe to Separated by a Common Language posts and comments. With this new format I've had to subscribe anew to the comments. I'm not sure whether or not I'm still subscribed to the posts.

    If anybody reading this is a subscriber, I recommend checking that you're still connected.

  28. Happy birthday!

    Both versions seems a bit awkward to me, but I (US) lean towards not using a comma in "Happy birthday Lynne". Commas may not always represent pauses, but I find it hard to read the version with the comma without a pause.

    I also think that "Happy birthday" not being a normal sentence may be a factor here. In "I wish you a happy birthday, Lynne" the comma feels much more necessary.

  29. Zouk Delors

    The actor, Gwynneth Paltrow received an Oscar. [No pause at comma when spoken]

    Well I agree that there's no pause, but I would never put a comma there. As Lynne says, it's a question of intonational units. In this case
    The actor, Gwynneth Paltrow is one unit, with the stress on PAL, and the voice rising or holding steady at the end.
    received an Oscar is one unit, with the stress on OSC and the voice falling over the word Oscar.

    The actor, Gwynneth Paltrow, received an Oscar. [Pause at commas]

    Commas OK, but the pauses are questionable. Again, it's a question of intonational units. In this case

    The actor is one unit, with the stress on ACT, and the voice rising or holding steady at the end.
    Gwynneth Paltrow is one unit, with minor stress on GWYNN and major stress on PAL, and the voice rising or holding steady at the end.
    received an Oscar is one unit, with the stress on OSC and the voice falling over the word Oscar.

    We can put a pause in the first sentence — to keep the listener in suspense, perhaps, or simply to draw breath. (Also, it can be a trick to draw attention to the phrase isolated by the pause, in this case Gwyneth Paltrow. Whatever the reason for the pause, it can only go after Paltrow.

    We can put two pauses in the second sentence sentence, but wouldn't usually. They aren't particularly good places to draw breath, since the intonational units are so short. And I don't feel that pause would alter the emphasis. Personally, I would only insert pauses if I thought the listener was having difficulty or not paying much attention.

    1. Sorry! I failed to delete a comma. My first paragraph should read:

      Well I agree that there's no pause, but I would never put a comma there. As Lynne says, it's a question of intonational units. In this case

      The actor Gwynneth Paltrow is one unit, with the stress on PAL, and the voice rising or holding steady at the end.
      received an Oscar is one unit, with the stress on OSC and the voice falling over the word Oscar.

  30. David Marjanović

    Insertions into a sentence are surrounded by commas – but relative clauses are exempt from this in English; they're not in German (e.g. "the one, who did this, is...").

    An unfortunate example. English has strong and, for once, useful prescriptive rules.

    the one who did this is not 'exempt' from anything. It's universally agreed to be wrong to insert a comma.

    Most (but not quite all) examples of relative clauses can be classified as either defining aka restrictive or non-defining aka non-restrictive. See the thread which vs that.

    The phrase who did this is syntactically a restrictive relative clause (or whatever terminology one prefers). Commas are not possible.

    Some languages (including German, I believe) separate a clause after words like say. English doesn't. It's He said that it was true not *He said, that it was true. Again, it not a question of 'exemption'. English prescribes against a comma, and everybody conforms to the prescription.

    Your generalisation Insertions into a sentence are surrounded by commas is true only for a narrow definition of 'inserted'. In a sense, non-restrictive relative clauses are 'inserted' — and for that reason they are separated by commas. But who did this is not 'inserted' in this way. Suppose your sentence in full to be The one who did this is a monster. The relative clause is integral; remove it and you get The one is a monster. As a stand-alone sentence, this is grammatical but incoherent.

    1. David Marjanović06 October, 2016 10:04

      A rule can be an exemption from another rule: if rule A applies everywhere except in those cases where rule B applies, that makes B an exemption from A.

      Suppose your sentence in full to be The one who did this is a monster. The relative clause is integral; remove it and you get The one is a monster. As a stand-alone sentence, this is grammatical but incoherent.

      This is a good point, however. Perhaps tellingly, it doesn't apply to German (except the stylistically highest variants), where the definite article is identical to the most common demonstrative pronoun, so the sentence would be interpreted as "that one is a monster".

    2. Yes, but there is no general rule in English along the lines of

      Finite clauses are separated by commas from the rest of a sentence.

      Something like this, as far as I can tell, constitutes a rule in German, and also a rule in Russian.

      Now there is a rule in English

      Components such as relative clauses or appositive noun phrases are not separated by commas when they are integrated within a noun phrase

      This second rule is not an exemption from the first. It's part of the evidence that the first rule has no existence in English.

      Further evidence includes
      • the unacceptability of He said, that he was ready.
      • the acceptability of I'll be there when see her.

      I think the actual general rule of English is something like this

      Finite clauses may be separated from the rest of the sentence by commas, provided that they are not integrated into a higher-level structure

      By higher level structure I'm thinking of

      • FINITE CLAUSE He said that he was ready
      • NON-FINITE CLAUSE saying that he was ready
      • NOUN PHRASE the belief that he was ready

      If you really want a GENERAL RULE + EXEMPTION framework, I suppose you could start with the contrary of the German rule.

      GENERAL Clauses and appositive noun phrases within a higher-level structure are not separated by commas.

      EXEMPTION Commas may be used to separate clauses or appositive noun phrase to signal that they are not integrated within the higher-level structure.

      I speak of signalling because I believe that we make a communicative choice based so much not on objective facts in the real world as on how we choose to view and represent selected facts.

      Take the song I wish that I could shimmy like my sister Kate. The way some grammatical explanations are worded suggests that the absence of a comma means that I have more than one sister.

      I disagree. All that this punctuation implies is that I have one woman in mind. The fact that she is a sister and the fact that her name is Kate are of equal importance. Any other facts are irrelevant. I may have another sister, more than one perhaps, but she/they are far from my thoughts if, indeed, they exist.

      Even I wish that I could shimmy like my sister, Kate don't necessarily imply — though punctuation or through intonation — that she is my only sister. Yes, that may be the case, but all my utterance shows is that I have one sister in mind, and that I've made a second communicative choice viz to name her. (This may be motivated by social factors. My hearer/reader may know Kate. Or I may be creating an illusion of intimate knowledge.) The two facts about this woman are not equally relevant: when I made my first communicative choice, the fact of her being a sister to me was salient; when I made my second choice, it was an afterthought.

    3. If there is a general rule in English, it's practically the contrary of the German/Russian rules. Something like

      GENERAL Finite clauses (and non-finite clause) are not separated from the rest of the sentence by commas.

      We then need

      EXEMPTION 1 Finite clauses (and non-finite clause) may be separated by commas at boundaries between coordinate clauses or between superordinate and subordinate clauses.

      EXEMPTION 2 Commas may be used to separate clauses or appositive noun phrase to signal that they are not integrated within the higher-level structure.

  31. Look at this page of images: I’m all right Jack

    Several rows down, there's a lone example with a comma. If there are any others I haven't spotted them.

    OK, dictionaries do seem to insist on I'm all right, Jack. And some of the OED quotations do have the comma. But I suspect they were inserted by sub-editors.

  32. Happy birthday! Hope you've been having a lovely day. I love the new blog background - very shiny!

    I wouldn't write "Dear, Lynne" in a formal letter, and in the same way I wouldn't write "Hi, Lynne" at the top of an e-mail. (Interestingly, though, there is a difference in usage between the USA and GB here; I would write "Dear Lynne," before going on to the body of the letter, whereas in the USA, so I learnt many years ago, one would write "Dear Lynne:" in the same circumstances. Is this still true?

    1. I see one can still not edit one's comments, so I will just use the "reply" function to add something vital: )

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. In the past we could edit through duplication followed by deletion. (You can delete your own post.) I'll try to do the same in this new format.

    4. Yes it still works. I thought it would, but I was afraid the duplicate might not appear in the right place on the page.

    5. But "Dear Lynne" and "Hi, Lynne" have different syntaxes. "Dear Lynne" is all vocative. And that, dear reader, is why there can't be a comma separating "Dear" from "Lynne".

  33. I wonder if there's a way of testing whether the same people use commas less on social media than they do in, for example, greeting cards. That is, are you observing a general changing pattern in the vocative comma, or a media-specific changing pattern?

  34. Enticing new look; I really like it. Oh, and ¡feliz cumpleaños, Lynne!

  35. I must say I'm finding this thread rather amusing. Britons are (no doubt stereotypically) fond of bemoaning the "fact" that sloppy American usage is ruining the language. And yet here we have numerous Britons arguing forcefully that the historical rules of comma usage should be ignored. Perhaps it's true that they haven't been taught the rules. Perhaps some teachers over there are making up their own new rules ("commas mark pauses in speech"?). Commas have a grammatical function, and dropping them can create unnecessary ambiguity. As a computer scientist, perhaps I'm a bit pedantic about this, being aware that misused punctuation in a computer program can cost millions of dollars (as in the famous Mariner I disaster).

    In the Gwynneth Paltrow example, the issue is not intonation or pauses -- the construction is an appositive. The Wikipedia article explains this clearly. If an appositive is non-restrictive, commas are used. If it is restrictive, they are not. The general rule is if the appositive phrase is not essential, so that removing it does not change the meaning of the sentence, then it is non-restrictive. It can sometimes be unclear if a particular example is restrictive or not, especially when the sentence is taken out of context. In this case, if Paltrow had not been mentioned before, then it is a restrictive appositive and commas would not be used. If this sentence appeared in an article about Paltrow, so that the referent of the sentence would be clear without mentioning her name again, then it is non-restrictive and commas should be used. But claiming that commas should never be used in this sentence is just not defensible.

    1. The 'historical rules of comma usage' are more recent than you'd think. The notion that a comma marks a pause is much older. The original function of a comma was perceived to be an aid to reading aloud, marking a pause shorter than a colon and shorter still than a period.

      The rise of punctuation as a grammar marker was often not obvious to previous generations. Nor did it completely trump the pause principle until the nineteenth century. The immensely influential Lindley Murray (1745-1826) ruled that a comma was necessary between a lengthy subject expression audits verb (not that he could give a satisfactory definition of of long). David Crystal in Making a Point, The Pernickety Story of English Punctuation quotes two examples of Murray's own usage

      A conjugation added to the verb, shows the manner of being ...

      These writers assert, that the verb has no variation from the indicative ...

      I suspect that Murray, and grammarians before him, did have a sort of pause in mind — but not an audible pause made when reading aloud. Rather, I think, they conceived of a pause of though on the part of the silent reader, to digest the long(-ish) complex(-ish) phrase that had just been encountered.

      There's something comparable today — in British English if not in American — when the verb after a lengthy subject is is. For example

      The outcome of this complex history is [PAUSE] is something unexpected.

      By common consent, this is based on, but by no means syntactically comparable to

      What the outcome of this complex history is [PAUSE] is something unexpected.

      Over here we here sentences like this a fair bit on the radio. People seem to avoid them in writing, no doubt because the problem of punctuation would be horrendous.

    2. Unfortunately, Crystal doesn't discuss what we're calling 'vocative' use. But he does quote some interesting examples from Shakespeare, suggesting what his printers thought about punctuating it.

      A Globe Theatre text reproducing the punctuation of the First Folio:

      Let each man render me his bloody hand.
      First Marcus Brutus will I shake with you;
      Next Caius Cassius do I take your hand;
      Now Decius Brutus yours; now yours Metellus;
      Yours Cinna; and my valiant Caska, yours;
      Though last, not least in love, yours good Trebonius.

      Only one 'vocative'-marking comma — and that after the name.

      However, Crystal also quotes this passage from Henry IV Part 1 with a facsimile reproducing the First Folio spelling, punctuation and typeface. Prince Hal and Poins are interrupting each other's conversation with the servant Francis.

      At first glance, the printer seems to following the 'vocative comma' rule.

      Prin. How long haſt thou to ſerve, Francis?
      Fran. Forsooth fiue yeares,and as much as to-----------
      Poin. Francis.
      Fran. Anon,anon ſir.
      Prin. Fiue years : Betlady a long Leaſe for the clin-
      king of Pewter. But Francis, dareſt thou be ſo valiant aſ
      to play the coward with thy Indenture; & ſhew it a faire
      paire of heels,and run from it?
      Fran. O Lord ſir, Ile be ſworne vpon all the Books in
      England,I could find in my heart.
      Poin. Francis.
      Fran. Anon,anon ſir.
      Prin. How old art thou,Francis?
      Fran. Let me ſee, about Michaelmas I ſhalbe-------
      Poin. Francis.
      Fran. Anon ſir, pray you ſtay a little,my Lord.
      Prin. Nay but harke you Francis, for the Sugar thou
      gauest me, 'twas a pennyworth, was't not?
      Fran. O Lord ſir, I would it had bene two.

      On second and more glances, the printer only uses a comma consistently only
      • before the name Francis
      • at the end of a sentence

      In mid sentence we get

      Nay but harke you Francis, for the Sugar thou
      gauest me, 'twas a pennyworth, was't not?

      Before sir the printer places no comma, even at the end of a sentence. Possibly this is because there is already a comma (without a space) after anon.

      However, there is an example of comma (again without a space) before my Lord.

      I think we can safely say that a consistent 'historical rule of comma usage for vocatives lies a fair way in the future after Shakespeare's time.

      [By the way, Crystal cites this text not to illustrate comma usage but to show how dashes were extended as far as the right hand margin.]

    3. And another thing markn

      [or, if you prefer, And another thing, markn]

      I can't say I share your admiration for the Wikipedia treatment of Apposition: Restrictive versus non-restrictive. Those subscript capitals labelling appositive phrase and phrase in apposition are unnecessarily confusing. And the definition of restrictive and non-restrictive in terms of meaning is about as bad as Lynne's bugbear "nouns are persons, places, or things" and "verbs are action words". Syntactical terms should be defined syntactically. the semantic stuff is useful only to people who already understand the syntax.

      The actor Gwynneth Paltrow can be a syntactic unit known as a noun phrase — comparable to Henry the Fifth or The artist formerly known as Prince. Those explanatory words Gwynneth Paltrow and the Fifth and formerly known as Prince are each integrated into the noun phrase. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Languageactually uses the term integrated rather than restrictive.

      Yes, we can legitimately ask

      Which actor?
      Which Henry?
      Which artist?

      but this is a syntactic test, not a test of meaning.

      But we can also treat the actor, Gwynneth Paltrow as two syntactic units, with the words Gwynneth Paltrow not integrated but supplementary — the term preferred by the Cambridge Grammar in place of non-restrictive.

      Syntax is a complex of abstract relationships — made concrete by visible writing or audible speech. To signal the syntactic intention:
      • a writer separates a supplementary expression by commas
      • a speaker marks a supplementary expression by use of intonation patterns

      Intonation is not irrelevant in the way that pauses are irrelevant.

    4. Aha!

      A quote from David Crystal:

      The contrast between restrictive and non-restrictive is clearly expressed through English intonation, and it's only natural to want to write this down.

    5. Well, yes, intonation does mark restrictive vs. non-restrictive apposition in speech, just as commas mark the difference in writing. But the restrictiveness (if that's a word; there's probably a more proper linguistic term) is what's primary, not the intonation. A similar difference in intonation that DIDN'T mark restrictiveness wouldn't necessarily be marked by commas in writing. Crystal's quote seems entirely consistent with my view, that the restrictive contrast should be marked in writing, which was my point, in opposition to Solidus' post.

      I agree that the definition of the difference between restrictive and non-restrictive as given in the wikipedia article does not seem satisfying, not least because they admit that the same sentence could be either, depending on context. But I'm not sure I follow how your reformulation in terms of supplementary expression improves the situation, other than giving the concept a different name. Whether "the actor(,) Gwyneth Paltrow" is one syntactic unit or two can't be determined by examining the structure of the sentence; it requires understanding the meaning and intention of the sentence, like it or not. When transcribing a spoken statement, one might use the speaker's intonation to determine whether a phrase is restrictive or not, but when composing ones own text, one can insert commas correctly without needing to hear the intonation of the text when spoken.

      By "historical rules of comma usage", I didn't mean to imply that we should be looking back to Shakespeare's time, when punctuation was used quite differently than in modern text. I was only looking back to perhaps the 19th and 20th centuries (a harsher critic of my statements might say I was only looking back to what I was personally taught, in the mid 20th century).

      Reviewing what you've written, I think we are in agreement that commas should be used to mark certain grammatical features, such as the restrictiveness of appositive phrases (or whatever you wish to call them), and should not be omitted (or inserted) frivolously. We may disagree only on the way to determine whether a phrase is restrictive or non-restrictive.

    6. it requires understanding the meaning and intention of the sentence, like it or not

      In my view, structure is the meaning and intention of the sentence.

      when composing ones own text, one can insert commas correctly without needing to hear the intonation of the text when spoken.

      I can't.

      We may disagree only on the way to determine whether a phrase is restrictive or non-restrictive.

      I don't see much disagreement on restrictive/non-restrictive. What we disagree on is the theme of this thread — whether commas are obligatory to separate what Lynne calls 'vocatives'.

      I can't remember whether or not I was taught to write Happy birthday, NAME. I choose to write Happy birthday NAME because that's how I hear it. And I do hear (silently) what I write. Always.

    7. A similar difference in intonation that DIDN'T mark restrictiveness wouldn't necessarily be marked by commas in writing.

      Oh I think it would. Take the sentences

      He came up finally with the solution.
      He came up, finally, with the solution.

      The two intonation patters echo the patterns of sentences with restrictive and non-restrictive expressions. And the commas reflect the patterns.

  36. Oh, and Happy Birthday, Lynne!

  37. I don't think anyone's said that anyone would write 'Dear, Lynne', but some are reacting as if someone did say that. 'Dear Lynne' is a different kettle of fish from 'Hello, Lynne'. 'Dear' is not something you'd say on its own--it's an adjective modifying 'Lynne'. 'Hello', on the other hand, is something you could say on its own. The 'Lynne' is a vocative after it. I use the comma between 'hello' and the name intermittently. These days (maybe British influence) it looks much more formal, or maybe like a come-on! HELlooooo LYNNE.

    Thanks all for the birthday wishes!

    Do let me know if you find any bugs in the new blog format. We've corrected a few already. If subscriptions have been interfered with, I'm sorry! Please do re-subscribe if that's the case.

    1. Dear, Lynne, is something you are to all your readers.
      (Couldn't help myself)

      My tendency is to omit commas from short sentences whose intonation should be clear and unambiguous.

      In the case of Happy Birthday I would insert an exclamation (point/mark) instead.

      Ignoring that for the sake of discussion: "Happy Birthday Lynne" omits the comma, but "'Happy Birthday, Lynne' I warmly greeted her." includes the comma for added clarity.

      American Millenial btw for sake of data.

  38. Lynne

    Is Comex-Forex Signals a bot intruder who has bypassed measures under the new format?


    Hmm... seems I was wrong with "The actor, Gwyneth Paltrow won an Oscar". It does seem to me though, that this comma can help the reader in an example such as: "The actor, Gwyneth Paltrow would like to have seen her co-star receive it instead". Compare: "The actor Gwyneth Paltrow would like to have seen receive the award was her co-star". Reading the first without the comma could make you begin to understand the construction as in the second until you got quite a way in before returning to the beginning to understand it properly.


    "The outcome of this complex history is [PAUSE] is something unexpected."

    I don't think the introductory phrase necessarily needs to be that long. I'm pretty sure I've heard things like: "The trouble is, is that that people aren't taught these things in school any more" -- though I can't point to any example offhand.

    1. Zouk

      I originally wrote

      The outcome of this complex history is, is something unexpected.

      But that made it about the comma, which I didn't want. So I put [PAUSE] instead.

      I do think that it's a pause for thought — although,as you say, it may be of negligible auditory duration. And I do think that the restart with extra is is motivated by the same corners that made earlier grammarians insert a comma.

    2. CORRECTION (It's that spellchecker again!)

      motivated by the same corners

      should be

      motivated by the same concerns .

    3. Zouk: I don't see any Comex, but there is no change to the spam detection here. I only moderate comments on 14+-day-old posts, as they attract more spam. When I see other spam, I delete it as soon as I can, but often Google's already got(ten) to it.

    4. David Marjanović06 October, 2016 10:17

      The "restart" was on Language Log once, because Obama says "the thing is is that..." a lot. Apparently "the-thing-is" as a single lexeme in his mind. (And he's not the only one, of course.)

  39. Elephant in the room?

    Is it "Happy birthday" or "Happy Birthday" and is this an Am/Br issue?

    1. David Marjanović06 October, 2016 10:18

      Surely "Happy Birthday" would be headline capitalization and nothing else?

    2. For me (American, age 56) it's always written capitalized. Happy Birthday, Joe. Happy Anniversary, Joe. Happy Bar Mitzvah, Joe. Happy Retirement, Joe. I wouldn't capitalize birthday, anniversary, bar mitzvah, or retirement at most other times and I always use a comma before the person's name. That's the way I was taught in grade school.

  40. Oh, Zouk, you're determined to keep me from doing what I'm supposed to be doing tonight (paying bills!).

    UK 14 Birthday : 24 birthday (37% cap)
    US 21 Birthday : 18 birthday (53% cap)

    Not as striking a difference as the commas, and could be generational--but I'm not going to go back and check ages. :)

  41. David Marjanović06 October, 2016 10:26

    The actor Gwynneth Paltrow received an Oscar

    G. P. got an Oscar, and, by the way, she's an actor. The word actor is completely unstressed unless you're speaking very slowly.

    The actor, Gwynneth Paltrow, received an Oscar

    Two options, depending on context:
    1) I've been talking about an actor for some time without naming them. Now I'm telling you who that is (and, coincidentally in the same sentence, that she got an Oscar).
    2) There's only one actor in the world. I'm telling you now that her name is G. P..

    Both of these options put strong stress on actor – and usually low pitch on its stressed syllable.

    There is no version with one comma.

  42. I am an American college student. Despite the trend against these commas, in my personal grammar the comma is mandatory in all of the cases listed. Am I just weird for a young person? Do young people tend to omit these commas more?

  43. Tangentially related: I use vocative comma on Twitter when replying to people, because that makes the replies look “nicer”. Without a comma it would often look weird (to me).

    An example would be

    @username, saw it yesterday on sale in the shop near the station in Kushiro


    @username saw it yesterday on sale in the shop near the station in Kushiro

    The second one looks as if it's the user I'm replying to saw the object in question.

  44. Lynne

    Oh! Here's hoping your creditors don't come gunning for me! I, in fact, first wrote "Birthday" before asking myself why I'd done that and, for want of a good answer, decapitalising it. Later I noticed others had also capitalised. Would any who did, care to attempt a justification?

    David Marjanović

    "There is no version with one comma."

    There is when I write it! (But perhaps I will stop doing that now -- except, of course, when it helps the reader avoid the garden path.)

  45. David Crosbie

    I got lost in the technicalities way back, so I've no idea whether it adds to, or detracts from your case, but I would note that I wish I could shimmy like Kate, my sister can't do without the comma, can it?

    Also, I'll be there when see her is meaningless to me (but perhaps only because you didn't check your text properly before sending).

    1. Sorry to be too technical. Let me try to simplify.

      When comparing my poor dancing with my skilled relative, I have only one young woman in mind. I may have another sister. I may have several sisters. but if they exist they are far from my thoughts.

      My first and only thought is of the two equally relevant facts about the young woman: that she's my sister and her name is Kate. Hence

      I wish that I could shimmy like my sister Kate.

      My first thought is of the fact that she's my sister. Then as an afterthought I name her. Hence

      I wish that I could shimmy like my sister, Kate.

      To reverse my sister and Kate makes for a very strange sentence. It would be strange to say and even stranger to write. If forced to do so, I'd probably write

      I wish that I could shimmy like Kate. My sister.

      the problem with your comma-using version

      I wish that I could shimmy like Kate, my sister.

      is that it looks uncomfortably like what Lynne calls a 'vocative', the equivalent of

      My sister, I wish I could shimmy like Kate.

      Yes, I did mean

      I'll be there when you see her

      I fixed it once, but my computer seized up and I pasted in a version that hadn't been fixed.

      The point about

      I'll be there when you see her

      is that there's no comma between the two clauses. This is one item of evidence that English, unlike German, doesn't have a general rule that insists on commas always separating clauses.

  46. Another usage that hasn't yet been mentioned is the Oxford comma, which is sometimes very necessary. I was taught that one wrote "She has a red, white and blue dress"; I believe the Oxford style is to write "She has a red, white, and blue dress", but that looks odd to me as there is no ambiguity.

    1. A more typical use of the Oxford comma would be

      She has a read dress, a white dress, and a blue dress.

      I don't think ambiguity is a consideration.

    2. A few years ago, I read a report of a book that had a dedication in which an Oxford comma would have been useful: "This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God."

    3. Does she have three dresses, or only one?

      I think my comma usage is heavily influenced by my computer programming background, so I use a lot of them to "group" my phrases. But I don't think that would help in this dress case.

  47. Fascinating. As an Anglo-South African, there are a few cases where my English tracks US-Englishes more closely and my use of commas with those adverbial phrases is one of them. Similarly, you can take vocative commas from my cold, dead hand.

  48. We have the same birthday! Wonderful. I wish I'd seen this sooner. Unfortunately, none of my UK acquaintances used vocatives in their Facebook greetings. It's also worth noting that, of my US friends and acquaintances, 12 used vocatives and only 3 used the comma. As it's only my 20th birthday, it's worth noting that my Facebook friends probably skew a bit younger than yours, but most of the people giving well-wishes were older family members so I'm not sure if any conclusions can be drawn about age.

    Also, my (US) high school also taught that these were called 'direct address' in English class. I had to resist using 'direct address' instead of vocative above!

  49. It was my birthday a few days ago and I noticed exactly the same thing, though I'm a native Spanish speaker. I always say "Feliz cumpleaños, " but lots of people dropped the comma when saying happy birthday to me. I've noticed people on social media using a lot less punctuation than what's taught in schools as proper writing. This applies to both English and Spanish, which have very similar punctuation rules.

    Maybe with a larger sample size age or education end up outweighing US/UK as the main cause of the variation in comma usage.

  50. I think I've worked out what I do when I punctuate. I had to 'work it out' not because it's an unconscious process that can only be inferred inferred not observed, but because it's a series of conscious steps which are (for the most part) immediately forgotten.

    Speaking only for myself, and my particular style of reading and writing ...

    1. I compose my sentences orally — albeit silently — in my head.

    2. I transcribe them as I hear them, using punctuation to mark the information units as my minds ear hears them — through intonation and stress.

    3. Either while writing a sentence or immediately afterwards, I try to hear how a reader might aud (read silently). Would he or she reproduce my intonation/stress patterns and thus appreciate my intended arrangement of information units? Is another reading possible?

    4a. If I see a possibility that a reader might impose an intonation/stress pattern that didn't represent my intended information arrangement, then I modify my silent delivery to one that can (I hope) be represented unambiguously. Typically, this might involve inserting a comma, or swapping a full stop/period for a semicolon (or vice versa). In my informal writing, it often involves a dash.

    4b. With long sentences, I really do sometimes put a pause in — for fear that the reader may race ahead of the intended information-unit boundary. The pause is, of course, silent and audible only to me, but it corresponds to the way I (especially in the past as a teacher) insert silent pauses for thought in careful delivery. This may involve inserting a comma or somehow breaking the sentence. In formal writing a new sentence may involve little re-writing; in informal writing it can be useful to start at the conjunction: . And ... . But ... etc. In the most informal of writing,again, I often favour a dash.

    4c. A final consideration is whether the text looks over-punctuated — a trap that I tend to fall into. It's not that I couldn't defend each comma (it's usually a comma) individually. Rather the density of punctuation can feel intimidating or obsessive.

    Of course I don't monitor all of these choices as I write. I am consciously aware of the editing changes. But the decisions are instaneous and immediately forgotten. And they're not all that frequent. Often the first transcription ([2] above) is satisfactory, and I need to get on with writing the next sentence.

    So that's why I would almost unconsciously put commas in

    I wish you, Lynne, a happy birthday.
    Lynne, the Dean phoned.
    The Dean phoned, Lynne.

    but not in

    Happy birthday Lynne.

    I don't need that 'grade school' rule to decide on commas in the first three, so I can blithely disregard the rule when deciding for the fourth.

    1. Very nice introspection, David. I feel my process is similar. I am gratified that you are explicit about something I said in reply to a later (reading top-down, of course) comment: that punctuation is to assist a reader in parsing text as the writer meant it to be parsed. In assisting parsing, punctuation will also naturally help anyone reading the text aloud, but prosodically the oral version will follow on from the understanding of the text rather than being directed by the punctuation.

      It is interesting that, as you note in a later comment, the first stabs at punctuation were intended to mark pauses of different lengths when reading text aloud. That would have been of some help in divining the author's meaning; but before that, text would have looked like the text messages I get from someone I know that include no punctuation at all and take longer to understand as a result.

  51. After reading this post I realised that I have indeed stopped using the vocative comma. I definitely would have put it in when I was at school, but now it feels a bit wrong. I thought about why this might be, and I wonder if it's because these days, I'm most likely to use the vocative when texting or chatting someone, and usually in text or chat messages punctuation can feel too formal.

  52. Sorry, I made these comments earlier on the wrong thread (and, as I think I also explained there, I can't use the Reply function on the system I'm using):

    David Crosbie

    Kate, my sister isn't that strange, especially in speech where it is an afterthought, meaning "not the other Kate we both know". I definitely wouldn't use a full stop(/period) there. Perhaps it's a bit like "the actor Gwyneth Paltrow", though, and the comma is unnecessary (or plain wrong per Markn).

    Jane Elizabeth

    Perhaps the capitals relate to the uniqueness of the particular occasion, something like "the Queen", "the Houses of Parliament". I understand this sort of capitalisation is on the wane (as is almost all in some new media!), maybe that is reflected by the fairly even split in Lynne's birthday greetings?

    1. I think you need a different sentence to make the final my sister plausible. For example

      That isn't my department. You'll have to speak to Kate — my sister.

      Again, the comma is liable to mislead the reader into perceiving a vocative.

  53. Please, tell me if this is a vocative comma.
    Please tell me, is this a vocative comma?
    Please tell me whether I need to use a comma here at all!

    1. This is a vocative comma, Biochemist - in the vocative case, you may or may not remember from Latin, one is addressing someone personally. Hence in the Latin translation of the Psalms, the Lord is addressed as "Domine", rather than "Dominus", "Domine" being the vocative case of the noun "Dominus".

    2. Incidentally, a few years ago, a Scottish friend of mine called Morag was telling me that there was a fashion in Scotland for spelling her name "Mhorag" as parents thought this was a more authentic Gaelic spelling. It is a Gaelic spelling, but of the vocative case of the name. What's more, because of the way cases work in Gaelic, it's pronounced "Vorag".

    3. Not as crazy as you'd think. the purpose of the letter H is not to represent a speech sound but give the abstract information that the M-sound has 'mutated' for some grammatical reason or other.

    4. It isn't Gaelic spelling conventions I find crazy, it's the thought of giving one's child a name in the vocative.

    5. After some interesting googling — some it using Gaelic as the preferred search language — I came to believe that Mhoraig is the regular spelling, and that many Gaelic speakers pronounce it with an initial V-sound.

      The image search results for Mhoraig are girls faces, and while the results for Moraig are a beach in Spain.

      Googling Mhairi is more productive. There's widespread agreement that in Gaelic Mhàiri (pronounced with a V) is a vocative form and that the nominative is Màiri (pronounced with an M).

      I failed to find a spelling for the nominative of Mhoraig, but finally twigged that you were talking about Mhorag I don't know either these are further grammatical variants or two distinct names. From then on it was easier.

      I identified (via websites for BBC News in Gaelic and the Harris Voluntary Service) a lady whose name is spelled Mòrag Rothach.

      I don't know how Ms Rothach chooses to be
      1. addressed
      2. referred to

      But I did get a — hopelessly muddled — picture for Mhàiri/Màiri. It seems clear that many son-Gaelic-speakers use the Mhairi spelling with no sense that it's vocative, still less that's pronounced with a V-sound. On the other hand, a credible number of female posters claim a spelling Mhairi and a pronunciation of something like ma-ree or marry.

      The MP Mhairi Black favours a pronunciation like marry. But this is not as conclusive as it looks. Scottish accents of English like hers do not distinguish between PALM vowels and TRAP vowels.

      The Wikipedia entry for Mhairi Black has a note on all this. It compares the name Hamish, which originated as a vocative — and therefore mutated — form of Seumas.

      One of the posts I read claims that no Gaelic-speaker would enter a vocative form on a birth certificate.

  54. "Some might admire the determination to stick to his guns shown by David Crosbie, my fellow commenter on Separated By a Common Language"

  55. Biochemist

    IANAL*, but I would say:

    1. No, a vocative comma is one that is used just before, or just after a direct term of address. E.g.:
    "Happy birthday, Lynne", or "O Lord, grant me the strength to endure"

    2. No. See 1, above.

    3. Good question; I think schoolteachers would have said "yes" at one time, but that comma may be destined for the same fate as the one that started this thread.

    *I am not a linguist

  56. I am a schoolteacher who is fighting the good fight. To me, any introductory element which comes before the subject of the sentence needs to be set off by commas. To use the old-fashioned grammar terminology, that includes nouns of direct address as well as adverbial phrases and dependent clauses. Honestly, I am so sick of grading so-called formal essays that read as if the writer were being charged fifty cents a comma.

    1. David Crystal illustrates that this practice may depend on the length of the adverbial. His example:

      Quickly John entered the room.

      When the adverbial is short, there's no grammatical or semantic reason to include a comma. The sentence means the same whether we insert a mark or not:

      Quickly, John entered the room.


      Actually, this choice isn't restricted to 'introductory element before the subject'. Similarly:

      John quickly entered the room.
      John, quickly, entered the room

      John entered the room quickly.
      John entered the room, quickly.

      Here(,) too(,) the grammar and syntax are the same but:

      The rhythmic effect is very different, though. So the option is open to any author who imagines these words spoken with a particular pronunciation and who want to reproduce this effect in writing. Anyone with a penchant for heavy punctuation (often for the pragmatic reason that it has been hammered into them at school) [my emphasis(,) Diane] will opt for commas regardless of sentence length or composition. Anyone with a penchant for light pronunciation (often for the equally pragmatic reason that they want their writing to look as uncluttered as possible) will opt for their omission. And there are all kinds of intermediate position. This is the main domain where 'taste' operates.

    2. Two of my own example choices

      1. Here(,) too(,) the grammar and the syntax are the same but:

      • Your introductory element before the subject principle calls for a comma after Here.
      • Another grammatical principle — seperation of included element — calls for commas before and after too.

      BUT Don't you find the punctuation

      Here, too, the grammar and the syntax are the same but:

      rather cluttered?

      Personally, my 'taste' would be to use two commas if at least one of those two elements is appreciably longer than a single word. Which is not the case here. [sentence break as a pause-marking device]

      2. my emphasis(,) Diane

      To my surprise, I found I prefer a comma here, although my feeling is for the country in Happy birthday, Lynne.

      I think the difference (for me) is that in my emphasis, Diane it's a change of address. Up to then I was addressing you and any reader who chances along. With this aside I narrowed the address to you personally.



      my feeling is for the country


      my feeling is for the contrary

  57. Diane Benjamin

    Would you include the initial "please" in Biochemist's example in that prescription? Could you also please say whether I have missed a comma in this sentence? If so, how does the use of the courtesy word "please" differ here?

    1. David Crystal's point about length may operate here. I'd be much more inclined to use commas in

      I implore you, tell me if this is a vocative.
      Could you also, I implore you, say whether I have missed a comma in this sentence?

  58. Pray tell me, is the definition of correct grammar "the grammar that one learnt at school" (wherever that may be? Is it as much of a cultural marker as the food one eats?

    1. I would call that

      'correct' grammar

      As someone who used to teach foreign learners, I do have a notion of correct grammar. It's what instinctively seems correct to native speakers — more narrowly to native speakers of the dialect that the students perceive as their target.

      There's also a sense in which very young children haven't learned correct grammar. This means that they sometimes use an idiosyncratic grammar of their own invention rather than the grammar of the adults around them.

      In this day and age, I don't think the variation is nearly as great as that between food tastes. Typically, speech communities vary most by pronunciation, to a much lesser extent by vocabulary, and least of all by grammar.

      Variation in grammar has practically become the definition of a dialect as opposed to an accent.

      The civilised thing is to label variant forms as correct in another dialect. if we must be negative, let's say non-standard.

    2. — more narrowly to native speakers of the dialect that the students perceive as their target.

      On second thoughts, I'd put a comma after more narrowly.

  59. With the example of 'Happy birthday', might it not be that people are writing non-formally? I wonder how many people would use the comma in a more formal piece of writing ... And surely the vocative comma isn't just an issue of style? As many of the commenters above have demonstrated, it's often crucial to help distinguish meaning.

    (I love the last line of this post, by the way! And happy belated birthday, Lynne!)

  60. How odd, the comment I was going to reply to doesn't seem to be here! Oh well. I was reminded of this conversation today when, in a book I was reading, I came across the following sentence: (slightly amended because I am quoting from memory) "Their number included the Head Prefect, Imogen Fellows, and Heather Adams", and it was quite unclear whether the author meant two girls or three. In fact she meant three....

    1. To me, Annabel, the punctuation clearly implies three girls.

      The alternative would demand an odd context in which the reader was expected to know exactly who Heather Adams was, but not the identity of the Head Prefect.

      To express a two-girl pairing, I would write:

      Their number included the Head Prefect, Imogen Fellows, and a girl called Heather Adams

    2. The way to remove any possibility of confusion is not to re-punctuate, but to rephrase:

      Their number included the Head Prefect, together with Imogen Fellows and Heather Adams

    3. This brings us back to your earlier raising of the Oxford comma, Annabel.

      A frequent defence of the serial comma centres on a slightly different construction. Imagine a different universe with a different history in which there were two Head Prefects. The choice now is between

      1 Their number included the Head Prefects, Imogen Fellows and Heather Adams
      2. Their number included the Head Prefects, Imogen Fellows, and Heather Adams

      The comma-less version [1] implies two girls. The Oxford comma-ed version [2] lists four girls.

      There's an amusing — no doubt apocryphal — account of the book dedication

      This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God

      The website where I found this used to carry cartoon illustrations of

      1 We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.
      2 We invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin.

      They still cite an example given in the Chicago Manual of Style

      She took a photograph of her parents, the president, and the vice president

      So, in certain contexts the serial (Oxford) comma serves to distinguish apposition from listing. Sadly, your example is not one of those conditions:- Imogen Fellows + COMMA could be
      EITHER in apposition to the Head Prefect
      OR the penultimate item in a list of girls

      This brings me back to Lynne's point about the centrality of intonation.

      The function of intonation in adding expression to speech is pretty obvious. Less widely considered is the way we use it to make packages of information. One way (I think the most important way) is to signal

      Bear this piece of information in mind

      The signal is a rising tone in pronouncing the most important word.

      This is the information I've been building up to

      The signal is a falling tone on the most important word.

      So what your writer really meant was

      the Head ↗PRE-fect
      Imogen ↗FELL-ows
      and Heather ↘A-dams
      (three girls)

      What you thought she could have meant was

      the Head ↗PRE-fect Imogen↘FELL-ows
      and Heather ↘A-dams
      (two girls)

      [Different speakers may use somewhat different intonation, but I believe these are more or less the general patterns.]

      This is where the comma fails to clarify things.

      • In the first version (the three-girl version with Oxford comma) it corresponds to a ↘FALL in the preceding piece of information (Imogen Fellows)

      • In the second version (the two-girl version with apposition) it corresponds to a ↗RISE in the preceding piece of information (Imogen Fellows)

      The page with Oxford comma examples is here
      This JFK and Stalin cartoons are no longer there, but I did copy them here in a discussion elsewhere of the Oxford comma.

    4. I've certainly seen some silly examples where the Oxford comma was needed to clarify one's meaning. I think someone on Facebook found a collection of them somewhere. Certainly it helps, but doesn't always clarify!

    5. David

      Although the strippers etc. makes for an amusing cartoon, it's hard to imagine a context where they would get top billing like that. "Stalin, JFK and the strippers" seems most likely (even assuming JFK was well enough known to be identified by his initials whilst Stalin still lived).

      Also, "a girl called Heather Adams" seems too remote. She could be well-known to the school (say, as a talented musician or hockey player?). In such a case, "... Heather Adams and the Head Prefect, Imogen Fellows" might be clearest, even if it perhaps seems to diminish the role of Head Prefect slightly.

    6. She could be well-known to the school (say, as a talented musician or hockey player?).

      Then (for the two-girl scenario) I might write:

      Their number included the Head Prefect, Imogen Fellows, and also Heather Adams.

      I wouldn't object to reading this sentence without the first comma:

      Their number included the Head Prefect Imogen Fellows, and also Heather Adams.

      I wouldn't object too much if it had neither comma:

      Their number included the Head Prefect Imogen Fellows and also Heather Adams.

      The only version I'd object to is the one with the first comma only:

      Their number included the Head Prefect, Imogen Fellows and also Heather Adams.

    7. "Their number included the Head Prefect Imogen Fellows, and also Heather Adams."

      I think in this version, it would probably be simply "...Head Prefect, Imogen Fellows,.." rather than "... the Head Prefect, Imogen Fellows [etc]"

    8. "...Head Prefect, Imogen Fellows,.." rather than "... the Head Prefect, Imogen Fellows

      1. sounds Amercan to me

      2. omits the possibly relevant inform,atom that this school at that time had only one Head Prefect

    9. Nothing with "head prefect" or indeed the name 'Imogen" can be said to sound American. ;)

    10. The absence of the sounds alien to me. It feels new-fangled, and my instinct was to assign to Time-style journalism.

  61. I don't think it's profitable to argue that inclusion or omission of the comma here is unacceptable for some deep reason hidden in the depths of time and selected versions of grammar. I usually use say "Happy Birthday, John" as I feel it comes across as more considered and hence sincere than "Happy Birthday John" (which I might just use at the end of a personal letter).

  62. Happy Birthday, Lynne, coming here seven years later from Twitter!

    I (AmE, raised in New England, GenX) feel like "Happy Birthday, Lynne" and "Happy Birthday Lynne" aren't semantically the same - in the former "Lynne" is vocative, whereas in the latter it's something more like an indirect object of the implicit verb? I.e. any something like "I wish a Happy Birthday to Lynne." It'd be more appropriate when addressing a group that includes Lynne than the version with the comma is.


The book!

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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)