The Vocative in Crisis

Comma Peter Arkle

Illustration courtesy of Peter Arkle*

Readers can you pay attention for a moment?

I know there was a debate last night, but seriously readers wouldn’t you prefer to think about something less ephemeral than a presidential election? Something as durable as … vocatives?

I bet neither candidate mentioned vocatives. And yet there’s a vocative crisis, illustrated in my first two sentences above. Readers, lots of vocatives are losing their protective commas, the commas that set them off from their neighbors and identify them as vocatives.

A vocative is like an address label, telling who the audience is for the surrounding verbiage. It’s often a person’s name; sometimes it’s a more generic term, as in “Guys, let’s get this done.” It’s often part of the start of an email message, as in these examples I’ve recently received (vocatives in italics and some names changed):

- Professor Metcalf, Okay I will be there today.

- Allan, So, did you have to write people’s abstracts yourself?

- Faculty & Staff, I am Ben Franklin, coordinator of. …

- Yes, I do remember that, Allan.

- Hi, Allan, could you please send me a digital copy of the five-year plan?

- Good eye, Susan. The committee is in charge of finding evidence. …

- Dear Colleagues, With both regret and very warm wishes. …

- Dr. Metcalf, As a student, I would like to attend the annual luncheon.

- Hi, ALLAN, your statement is available. …

But then there’s an almost equal number of vocatives lacking the setoffs:

- I’ll send them to you Dan when I get to a computer.

- Dear Dr. Metcalf I will not be in class today. …

- Thank you Allan.

- Hi Allan and Bill, Various email is coming in complaining about things.

Where did the missing commas go? Maybe they were burned up in the atmosphere as a result of global warming. Or maybe they were zapped as they traveled the internet.6d0ffa2ed1e59e9f664a7ae434b94c9f

They aren’t in such danger in our spoken language, where pauses rather than commas serve to set off vocatives. Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) in Masters of Sex is a notable example, pausing a moment before concluding a sentence with a vocative, as in “Let’s be honest, … Bill. What we had was about as honest as two amoeba in a petri dish.”

Vocatives often appear in sentences that are commands and questions, because they indicate who should obey the command or answer the question.

OK, readers, thanks for staying with me this far. You can go back to discussing that debate now.


[[*For more drawings by Peter Arkle, go to his website.]]

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