Cannibal Commas

commaThe writer Bich Minh Nguyen posted a question on Facebook the other day that drew a swell of discussion:

Grammar dilemma over here. According to grammar sites we’re supposed to write “Hi, Jane” rather than “Hi Jane” (because “Hi” is different from “Dear”). But this just doesn’t sit right with me. I dislike the two commas involved: “Hi, Jane,” looks cluttered compared to “Hi Jane.” I’m starting to feel a little anxious whenever I start an email. Will the person I’m writing disapprove of my (lack of) grammar? Which path should I take?

Responses ranged from the euphonic (“’Yo Jane!’ has a nice ring to it”) to the technical (“Personally sometimes I use the comma, other times not; the not being when I am using Siri on a I-device and Siri does not always understand it is supposed to insert a comma rather than spell out the word ‘comma’”). Though several writers suggested the syntactic approach (“’Dear Jane’ starts with an adjective; ‘Hi, Jane’ starts with an interjection”), the solutions offered with that premise quickly became problematic. Those advocating the initial comma tended to prefer end punctuation after the addressee’s name, leaving Bich with an uncomfortable choice between end-stopping the email just after it begins (“Hi, Jane. Hope you’re well”) or waxing overly enthusiastic (“Hi, Jane! Hope you’re well”). One respondent admitted “cheating,” “in that I most likely follow the whole salutation not with a comma but with an m-dash or a colon.” Those arguing against the initial comma gave no quarter: “I’m for overthrow,” wrote one respondent. “The end of the unnecessary comma’s dominance is nigh.”

Bich herself participated in the thread with her usual good humor. “I feel like a ghost ship of cannibal commas is coming right at me,” she wrote—at which point I asked if she and I might correspond a bit about this urgent matter.

And so we did. Following are a few excerpts, which Bich has kindly allowed me to reproduce.

Hi, Bich!

I’m going to try just about every iteration of this greeting, to see how we do. Of course, the alternative some of us have started practicing is to leave off the “Hi” and start simply “Bich,” though that seems abrupt to me. And it’s at the point where “Dear Bich” feels as if I’m about to propose marriage or gently end our relationship.

Hi, Lucy–

As I’m trying out the m-dash, I’m feeling kind of tense. The look of the line signals tension to me, a sense of halting, as it does in poetry.

Part of the problem is that most informal salutations are supposed to sound friendly, which “Hi” generally conveys. Starting with just the person’s name seems abrupt; starting with just “Hi,” without any name, seems vague and borderline rude.

I’ve been thinking about this for some time, especially because more and more people have been writing “Hi, Bich,” in their emails to me. I can’t bear the awkward double comma but at the same time I wouldn’t want anyone to scorn my grasp of grammar!

Does that mean the whole thing is really about self-consciousness, about how our email personas are established? In terms of grammar I’ve always been one to follow the “rules,” but I’m feeling rebellious about this one.

I’m completely with you, Bich. And you’ll notice that in this response I managed not to use any salutation at all but just to use your name in the first sentence, as though we were having a conversation. That’s the way I like to avoid the whole grammatical mess when the emails are close enough together. Of course, when they aren’t, it rears its head again. And then I don’t know how this translates cross-culturally, either. I’ve been corresponding with a friend in Pakistan who still uses “Dear Lucy,” which is kind of a relief, but I’m afraid I’ll slip and write “Hi Shazia” at some point and she’ll be offended!

Do you really think the email salutation thing has been around long enough to have rules? Feels to me as though we’re stuck somewhere between letters and conversations and so the rules don’t match up.


I try to do the same thing, Lucy, after a correspondence has been started. I basically try to avoid salutations in email whenever possible. It seems to me that any kind of formality can be read as aloof. I worry about this. As a result, I use exclamation points far more often than I ever would have imagined. My emails are filled with them!

I’m really pulling for “Hi Jane” to become the norm. It’s brief, it’s friendly, it’s uncluttered. Grammar does change, after all. I think, with a lot of support, we can make this happen.

Email sign-offs are easier for me because “All best” and “Best” are so widely used and accepted and because it’s easier to end a message by wishing someone well. As in:

Hope you’re well!


So there you have it, a panoply of choices. Not to mention that Bich and I would like to give the lie to that perfidious rumor that writers don’t correspond these days.

Bich Minh Nguyen is the author of Pioneer Girl, just published by Viking.


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