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How New Is That Rule?

Maecey, a director of corporate communications, wrote to me with a question. She wanted to know when the comma rule for direct address had become proper usage. She was referring to the commas in these sentences, which address the reader directly:

Brandy, will you attend the writing class in Seattle?
No, Karthik, I attended the class last week in Portland.

That comma has been standard for the many years I have been studying business writing. But I wanted to give Maecey a better reference point than my years of study. So I checked my recently acquired copy of Handbook of Business English, by George Burton Hotchkiss and Edward Jones Kilduff, both of New York University.

The book was published in 1914. It includes the comma for direct address in this example:

You will understand, Mr. Fall, that we have done our best in this matter.

The rule Hotchkiss and Kilduff provided with the sentence does not refer to direct address. Instead they wrote, "To set off a noun used in apposition with, or in explanation of, another noun or pronoun, use commas." Applying that rule to direct address, whenever you are writing to you (the reader) and use his or her name, the name is a noun in apposition and should be set off by commas.

I hope Maecey's coworker is convinced that the use of commas in direct address has been around for a while.

Syntax Training

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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.

2 comments on “How New Is That Rule?”

  • Lynn:
    I have had great fun describing the importance of using a comma in a direct address. As you know, I’ve been teaching a business writing class for my coworkers. By far, the direct address rule has generated the most discussion. Some folks simply don’t believe – or want to believe – it’s a “rule.”

    I finally made the point of how important a comma is in a direct address when I used the following example found on another website: “Let’s eat Grandpa!” vs. “Let’s eat, Grandpa!”

    Keep up the good work; you have been a tremendous resource to me.

    Best regards,


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