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Apostrophe Where Is Thy Comma?

pyramus-and-thisbeMy hunch is that the case of the missing comma began with email. In an earlier post, I talked about a friend’s dilemma over email salutations, wherein the preferred casual “Hi” at the beginning is followed by a person’s name and then a comma, rendering the grammatically standard vocative comma (“Hi, Jane,”) perhaps superfluous and at least funny-looking. I’ve been counting, and of the hundreds of emails I’ve received from students since that post appeared, none — and I mean zero — used a comma after “Hi” or “Hello.” The emails beginning “Dear Prof. Ferriss,” of course, follow a different punctuation rule. But the dropped comma in direct address seems to have become standard usage for email exchange.

Which brings me to fiction and poetry writing. With increasing frequency, I find the use of the vocative, including poetic apostrophes, missing what I’ve always considered an essential comma:

I got the call today Bruce.

Don’t think about it Melissa.

Who am I fixing it up for Cindy?

David I love you.

Death I wrap you close about me.

Looking at these sentences in isolation, I find them absurd. I also know the standard examples proving the need for a vocative comma:

I’d like a blueberry Betty vs. I’d like a blueberry, Betty.

Really nice Mat vs. Really nice, Mat.

I know your sister Sally vs. I know your sister, Sally.

Let’s eat Grandpa vs. Let’s eat, Grandpa.

Where discussions of the vocative comma have arisen recently, those who resist it cite what the  New Yorker copy editor Mary Norris has called “playing by ear.” As one Grammar Girl commenter pointed out, “Just consider how you say, ‘Hi, Jane, how are you?’ Rarely do you pause after ‘Hi’; it would sound artificial.” Of course, we use plenty of commas for reasons other than sound — take, for instance, the comma I just inserted before that direct quotation.

But we also glean plenty of meaning from context. Those who choose not to use the serial comma are not really worried about the example I went to see the two strippers, JFK and Stalin. That sentence doesn’t occur in so-called real life. Neither does any confusion between a friend named Betty and the colloquial name for a dessert.

The vocative comma is a convention. Those of us who are used to the convention stop in our tracks for a moment when it’s missing. I do, at least, every time I find it missing in student work. My stopping to consider the missing comma impedes my enjoyment of the poem or story, and I suspect it could impede others’ enjoyment, not to mention the potential acceptance of said poem or story for publication by a persnickety editor. So I mark it, I talk to students about it, I try to inspire renewed use of the vocative comma. But its absence long ago ceased to bother me in email salutations, and I suspect it will bother me less and less in written discourse as time goes on. I may eventually cease marking it at all, as I’ve ceased “correcting” alright to all right.

Any doubt that the vocative comma is a mere convention went out the window when I learned that Shakespeare (or, to be precise, Shakespeare’s typesetter) left it out of some of the lines now most familiar to us. In most editions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we read:

Speak, Pyramus. Thisbe, stand forth.

But in the first quarto, the line reads

Speake Pyramus: Thysby stand forth.

And in John Donne’s poem “The Sun Rising,” the fifth line of the final stanza as we generally read it appears:

Thou, sun, art half as happy as we

But in Donne’s original, we find

Thou sunne art halfe as happy’as wee,

What do you think readers?

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