I’m a prolific reader. Novels, fantasy, biography, philosophy—I read them all, averaging approximately five books a month. My home library has around fifteen hundred books, and I’ve read most of them at least twice. As a result, I see a lot of commas, most good, some not so good.
Right now, I’m re-reading Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. I found the following sentence and thought it would be a good example to demonstrate a particular comma use.
My dear boy, they never told me you were here.
In this sentence, the protagonist’s father is speaking directly to him, using My dear boy to address him. We see that the direct address is followed by a comma. This follows Zen Comma Rule M: When directly addressing someone, place commas around his or her name.
What we learn from this sample is that other forms of address may be used as a name, and they, too, need to be placed within commas. Indeed, any form of address, written as if speaking directly to another person, needs to be placed in commas. This includes names, nicknames, descriptive terms, and all other types of text that are used to name the person being addressed.
For example, the phrase Book lovers everywhere is being used to directly address the readers in this sentence:
Book lovers everywhere, come to the store closeout sale on Monday.
A direct address is not part of the grammatical sentence. The grammatical sentence in the first sample above is they never told me you were here. We can remove the direct address, and the sentence still makes sense. It has the same meaning, and it is still grammatically correct. No information is lost. This is a good clue that the direct address needs to be enclosed in commas.
No matter where the direct address is in a sentence, it needs to be separated from the rest of the sentence with commas. Here’s another example from Brideshead Revisited that shows how the commas are used when the direct address is within a sentence.
No, Charles, I don’t believe I do.
Because the direct address is within the sentence, it is both preceded and followed by commas.
Need help with commas? Get Zen Comma, a guide to the 17 major uses and misuses of commas, available in PDF and Kindle formats. Read more about Zen Comma.