If you’ve made it this far down the comma rabbit hole, you deserve some congratulations! You’ve shown a real commitment to learning these tricky rules in a bid to improve (or brush up on) your writing skills. Hopefully, by now you’re beginning to see results in your work.
The good news is that we’re over the peak and we’re now cruising towards the finish line of knowing (almost) all there is to know about the comma. Today we’ll be discussing two deceptively simple rules: commas for direct address, and commas for separating repeated words.
Hey, you, listen up!
Direct address in writing refers to when the writer uses a name (or a word that can replace a name, a pronoun for example) to speak to that person (or thing Oi, Dracula!) directly. Direct address should be used by the writer to talk directly to the reader; likewise, writers use commas to indicate direct address between characters in dialogue. It may seem like an arbitrary rule, but with an example, you’ll see just how useful this comma is for clarity:
“Jenny Nicola said she’s on the way,” replied the driver.
“Jenny, Nicola said she’s on the way,” replied the driver.
For such a small punctuation mark, commas can have a huge impact on meaning. Here we have two sentences that mean entirely different things. Sentence one indicates that the driver knows a person called ‘Jenny Nicola’ who is apparently on the way; we do not know who the driver is speaking to, and the details of the sentence are something of a mystery.
Sentence two, however, gives us more information. We see the comma indicating direct address, which means the driver knows the passenger ‘Jenny’. We also know the driver is talking to Jenny about a third person – ‘Nicola’. They’re all on first name terms, which puts the reader at ease, as opposed to the first sentence where the mystery could create tension.
A rule that we all are guilty of breaking is direct address in letters and emails. Hi Mark should be written Hi, Mark; this is an example of direct address. However, Dear John remains correct as this is not direct address; in this case, Dear is an adjective, not a greeting.
Separating Repeated Words
Okay, here’s a quick recap on noun and verb phrases: a noun phrase is a group of words that contains a noun and elements modifying it (my big mug of tea), and it functions in a sentence as a noun; a verb phrase is made up of one or more verbs (should have scored is an example of a more complex verb phrase; technically single verbs are also verb phrases).
Issues arises when a noun or verb phrase finishes with a word that must be immediately repeated for the sentence to function. We never want to separate the subject of a sentence from the verb, but in some cases, it can help with clarity, which is always our primary goal. Sounds complicated, but it will soon become clear:
The question is, is she ready?
He argued that, that was his best.
In the first sentence, if we removed one is then it would be an incomplete thought; it would need more information to be grammatically correct as the sentence contains two clauses which cannot share the same verb.
The second sentence uses that in two different ways. Firstly, that is used as a conjunction to introduce a subordinate clause (as in I wish that he would shut up), and second as a determiner to identify or refer to a specific thing (as in That is the boy who stole my Johnny Mnemonic collector’s edition DVD).
The good news here is that the comma is optional, so it’s up to writers to make a decision and stick with it. We suggest adding commas here as it helps with reader clarity.
We’re almost at the end of our comma quest; help us decide which path to take by voting for the next punctuation mark we should cover in the comments below. Oh, and be sure to check out our previous comma guides if this is your first visit. Or for a look at how to write assignments, head over to our aptly named ‘Assignment Writing Guide’.
And remember, commas for direct address are the only thing standing between sounding like a human and sounding like an alien visitor:
What is this thing called ‘sweet’?
What is this thing called, sweet?