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Will You Commit Lynn? On Commas in Direct Address

Updated October 10, 2022.

My husband Michael gets copies of my email. We are in business together, and he keeps track of what comes in when I am busy teaching business writing courses.

Last week Michael received a political email, a persuasive request with the subject line “Will You Commit, Lynn?”

He relaxed when he noticed the comma before my name. Without it, the message might have been distressing: Will You Commit Lynn? One serious interpretation of that question would be “Will you put Lynn in an institution for people with mental illness?” A less grave meaning would be “Will you assign Lynn to this project?”

But the comma told Michael he was reading a message addressed to me–not about me. The comma indicated “direct address.”

A graphic explaining direct address with an example: "Will you sign our petition, Michael?" The comma indicates that the message is aimed directly at Michael.

Omitting commas in direct address is the most common punctuation error I see. These sentences from recent emails suffer from it:

Thank you Lynn.
Many thanks Lynn.
Wonderful tips Lynn.
Thanks Ms. Gaertner-Johnston.
Thanks for the info Lynn.

Because the writers are addressing me, a comma should come before my name.

Will you commit, dear reader, to using a comma when you address your readers directly?

And if you want more punctuation related posts, check out our Punctuation Pointer section.

Lynn
p.s. following this post, a reader sent me this gem below.  I will leave it up to you to decipher its many comma transgressions.

A picture of a misspelled sign that reads: "Attention Toilet ONLY for disabled elderly pregnant children"

Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.

10 comments on “Will You Commit Lynn? On Commas in Direct Address”

  • I made the mistake of responding to a vendor who sent me a photo to look at: Cute Rich. I actually meant: Cute, Rich. Then I continued with the email so it appeared as if I were addressing him as Cute Rich. Fortunately, he is also a friend but it was still embarrassing.

  • What about commas in the sentence “My husband Michael gets copies…”? Shouldn’t there be commas around “Michael” because it is an appositive? Unless you have more than one husband.

    Just askin’.

  • Hi, Alfredo. I haven’t actually seen anything like your examples. But they reminded me of an old comma example I like:

    “No, price too high.”
    “No price too high.”

    What a difference a comma makes!

    Lynn

  • Hi, Val. One husband is plenty for me.

    I follow the “Gregg Reference Manual” style of not using appositive commas for “very close relationships.” Here is how “Gregg” describes it:

    “A number of expressions are treated as essential simply because of a very close relationshiop with the preceding words. (If read aloud, the combined phrase sounds like one unit, without any intervening pause.)”

    “Gregg” goes on to provide this example:

    “My wife Eve has begun her own consulting business.”

    This example is provided in contrast:

    “Eve, my wife, has begun her own consulting business.”

    The second example requires a pause. The first does not.

    Thanks for asking, Val! What do you think of this approach?

    Lynn

  • Hmmm, one more rule exception to be remembered. I think I’ll stick with Chicago on this one – they leave the commas, but do allow them to be dropped in “informal prose.” Something for everyone!

  • Hi, Val. I used to follow CHICAGO’s style consistently. But I liked having fewer commas and so chose “my husband Michael” rather than my husband with two commas.

    Thanks for responding.

    Lynn

  • Here’s another classic example, similar to “Eats, Shoots, Leaves”.

    “Woman, without her man, is nothing.” Altering the punctuation changes the meaning dramatically: “Woman! Without her, man is nothing.”

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