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Syntax Training | Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

June 19, 2017

What Some Got Right About My Birthday: The Comma

I celebrated my birthday last month. Southwest Airlines got it right. TIAA did too. And a few good people on LinkedIn did as well. My dentist was among those who got it wrong. 

What some got right was the comma: Happy birthday, Lynn! 

That greeting is an example of direct address, that is, of directly addressing the reader. One or more commas is required in direct address. 


  • Emma, thanks for handling all the travel details. 
  • We hope to see you in Pittsburgh, Mason!
  • I am so happy, Isabel, that you have accepted the job.

Notice that this sentence doesn't need the comma because it's not addressing Sandra but talking about her:

  • Sandra thanks you for your discretion. 

Does this comma usage surprise you? People have become confused or lax about it with the prevalence of email and texts and their greetings:

  • Hello Michael, 
  • Hi Dan, 

Those greetings are the informal versions of Dear _________, which does not use the direct address comma. 

Last week I read a thoughtful newsletter article congratulating graduates in an organization. Unfortunately, it included a heading in large letters: "Congratulations Graduates!" No. No. No. It should have been "Congratulations, Graduates!" 

This comma has not slid into the waste bin of unnecessary punctuation. Every current style guide supports its use. 

If you would like to learn more about using commas for direct address, take the free trial of my course Punctuation for Professionals. The free trial includes a lesson on direct address and one on using apostrophes in possessive forms. If you like what you learn, enroll in the class. 

Do such missing commas drive you nuts? 

Syntax Training 


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Lynn Gaertner-Johnston
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