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. 

Examples:

  • 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 trial includes a pre-assessment to help you recognize what you know and don't know, along with a lesson on direct address. If you'd like to continue learning, enroll in the class. 

Do such missing commas drive you nuts? 

Update on June 28: I just saw another example in a message: "You're awesome Patrick." It looks like a name. Should we capitalize "awesome"? (Just kidding.)

Lynn
Syntax Training 

 

16 COMMENTS

  1. Dear Lynn,

    I do love your posts!
    Your blog is a wonderful example of how simple and clear things are the best (and most effective, by the way).

    Warm regards,
    Susana (from Portugal)

  2. This is one of the comma uses I detest. To my mind commas should only be used to indicate pauses.

    That being said, thank you for reminding us of the rule (until I can successfully overthrow it muh ha ha).

  3. Hi Alex,

    I believe the comma you asked about is still acceptable. I used it up until about three years ago. That’s when I came to accept “Hi” and “Hello” as replacements for “Dear,” which meant your comma was not necessary.

    Of your three examples, “Hello, Lynn!” is in a different format, of course. It’s a sentence. When I use direct address in even a very short sentence, I do use a comma.

    The problem with the “Hi” and “Hello” comma is that it looks odd to most people. Therefore, it distracts them from the content at the beginning of the message.

    Thanks for the question.

    Lynn

  4. This was great information; thanks so much for sharing! I am SO HAPPY to know that I don’t have to use a comma in my greeting anymore if I use the word “Hi!” I have always hated the way it looks, lol

  5. I’ve a different (less prescriptive) view: Unless omitting the comma would cause readers (other than grammar-sensitives) to stumble or misunderstand, then it can be left out.

    What’s the REASON for the rule? For instance, what problem does “Happy birthday Lynn!” (without a comma) cause?

  6. The time required to note whether a missing comma would cause readers to stumble or misunderstand is much greater than the second it takes to type a comma to follow an accepted rule. And following the rule is a surefire method, whereas the less prescriptive approach only guesses whether the reader understands. Also, I wouldn’t toy with “grammar-sensitives.” They care about the written word and appreciate a clear, correct message.

    Clarity is the reason for the rule. It makes it clear that we are talking to the reader, not about someone. In a group email “Jon and Carol take the second shift” makes a statement; “Jon and Carol, take the second shift” directs them to do something.

    Thanks for the question.

    Lynn

  7. Thanks for explaining your viewpoint. I think we’ll have to agree to disagree!

    Sadly, very many people find that the time needed to properly apply so many rules (with their various nuances) is far more than a second. And of course, most people never master them all, for their whole life!

    I think we’re both aiming for the same goal: clear writing. I can see that having many “strict” rules for people to follow COULD make writing easier, but unfortunately I don’t think it does (partly because there are many exceptions, like not needing a comma in “Hi Dan”).

    I’d say having so many rules makes most writers doubt themselves, so it’s a major obstacle to people expressing themselves freely but clearly. Of course, we need rules, and to me the overriding one is “Be clear!”

    There’s nothing unclear about “Happy birthday Lynn!”, no matter who’s reading it. Therefore, for me, a rule that says a comma’s needed is a harmful rule.

    Regards,
    Craig

    P.S. I’m hoping there’s no problem with me splitting “to… apply”‼

  8. Hi Craig,

    Disagree we do. It’s not a balanced match though, since the style manuals, editors, and proofreaders all stand on my side.

    I’m not sure why you would intentionally break a punctuation rule just because the sentence is acceptable to you without the comma. It’s an uphill, unnecessary communication battle.

    Also, it’s a really easy rule–not nuanced at all once you get beyond greetings, which have evolved from “Dear.” Are you using the reader’s name in a sentence? If yes, use the comma.

    Good luck!

    Lynn

    P.S. Split infinitive? No problem.

  9. Remember that British and Australian usage differs from US. (I’m British and live in Aus.)

    Here’s a more open-minded viewpoint: http://bit.ly/2vmdKtX (Coincidentally, it’s by someone called Lynne who also counted commas in her birthday greetings. She’s an American, but lives in the UK.)

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