Grammar & Punctuation: The Mystery of the Comma and the Vocative Case

Posted December 13, 2014 by Kathy Davie in Author Resources, Editing, Properly Punctuated, Self-Editing, Writing

I had just finished a short story about J. Jesperson which had a Sherlock Holmesian touch when I suddenly got it into my head to write about the vocative case. A bit of punctuation that too many writers don’t grasp.

There have been too times I’ve mentally halted as I try to figure out if one character is addressing another or simply telling another character about someone else. You know…there isn’t a budget on commas. No one is going to come to your door — or slither over the airwaves and into your computer — if you use commas. I swear!

A subset of parenthetical text (also known as an interrupter), the vocative case is a voicing, directly addressing a person or animal. It may be the person’s name or a word(s) that obviously refers to them.

Mary, bring in some candles.

Why don’t we all get together for dinner, John?

You lazy git, get in here!

“How’s it going, girls?” he greeted.

Hey, sunshine, you awake?

Grammar Explanations and the Properly Punctuated sometimes…

…cross as it does here in this post on “The Mystery of the Comma and the Vocative Case”. Being Properly Punctuated — the proper use of quotation marks, commas, semicolons, colons, ellipsis, etc., including how to properly mark dialog, and more — can be affected by the grammatical rules and principles on structure that determine where and how words are placed in phrases or sentences.

Sometimes I run across an example that helps explain better or another “also known as”. Heck, there’s always a better way to explain it, so if you have an idea or suggestion that makes quicker and/or better sense, I would appreciate suggestions and comments from anyone…as well as questions on issues with which you are frustrated. If you’d like to track it, bookmark this page.

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Vocative Case
Definition: It is someone who is directly being addressed, whether it’s a person’s name, title, epithet, endearment, or some other form of address.

Considered a parenthetical element, it may be further divided into a vocative noun phrase or a noun of address, which is simply being picky. They’re really all the same. As long as you get the general idea of the vocative case, you’re gold.

Types of Vocative Case
Basic Vocative Case
Rule: The vocative case is the general term for the setting apart of a form of address. It is always treated as parenthetical text set off with commas.

  1. Green indicates the vocative case

I won’t have it , Mary, I simply won’t have it!

Oh, darling, I love you.

Vocative Noun Phrase
Rule: “Noun phrase” simply means there is more than one word, and it is always set off from the rest of the sentence with comma(s).

  1. Yellow indicates the vocative noun phrase

Yes, my lord, I will do that.

You shit, get me a beer.

Noun of Address
Rule: This is different simply because the vocative is a proper noun, otherwise the same rules apply: use a comma(s) to separate the person being addressed directly from the rest of the sentence.

  1. Orange indicates the noun of address

I won’t have it , Mary, I simply won’t have it!

Oh, Frank, you are such a devil.

Oh, Mama, I don’t wanna.

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The Difference Between Using Commas or NOT Using Commas is…HUGE
Rule: The direct address (vocative case) is action-oriented and WITH commas while an indirect address doesn’t use commas and is less active.
Direct Indirect
Mary, get Jamie dressed. I told Mary to get Jamie dressed.
Hey, Aunt Helen, can you get me a beer? My cousin asked Aunt Helen to get him a beer.
Okay, doctor, what is the prognosis? Joseph asked the doctor what the prognosis was.
Let’s interpret the following:
Are you coming with us, Henry, or not?

Someone is asking Henry if he’s coming with them.

Are you coming with us Henry or not?

Sounds like the us Henry gang

Oh, Mama, I don’t wanna.

Telling Mom I don’t want to do something.

Oh mama I don’t wanna.

Sounds more like a run-on country western song.

C’mon, let’s ride, boys!

I’d interpret this as someone calling for the boys to come with them and ride.

C’mon, lets ride boys!

I reckon whoever is saying this is either gay or a really horny girl… (Pleated Jeans)

Passion, Righteous Indignation called…

Admittedly, Passion is an odd name for someone. What’s odder is that she knows someone named Righteous Indignation.

Passion Righteous Indignation called…

Damn, that girl’s got one long name… (Alan Eggleston at Web Editors)

Don’t wear black, people.

Someone is exhorting others to not wear black colors.

Don’t wear black people.

Other than it being difficult to wrap a person around your body, this just doesn’t seem decent…and you’d need a lot of muscle. For that matter, how would you fasten them on?

Let’s eat, Grandpa.

Someone is calling Grandpa to come and eat.

Let’s eat Grandpa.

I love this example, the little cannibals…

Ya know, the ones that tell the story?

I’m trying to get your attention with “ya know” and being somewhat sarcastic about asking if you know the words.

Ya know the ones that tell the story?

I’m asking if you know the words.

What the heck, man?

Dude…what are you doing? He’s asking a question of some guy.

What the heck man?

Ooh, is this like the Michelin Man? A heck man. Or maybe it’s like the green man?

You wish, buddy.

Yeah, you hope it’ll happen.

You wish buddy.

First off, whoever is talking sounds like a caveman. Maybe it’s a pejorative phrase and the guy she’s talking to is a “wish buddy”? Awww, is that like a Wishy Doll?

$100,000, dude

Look at that! It’s $100,000.

$100,000 dude

He’s like the million-dollar-man, but cheaper.

I’m going to train, Chris.

The person Chris is with is letting Chris know where he’s going.

I’m going to train Chris.

It might be that Chris has walked in the door, and this person has a training appointment with Chris on their schedule. That or it’s Chris’ old girlfriend and the new one talking over lunch, and the current girlfriend is telling the old that she’s going to get Chris to do it right…

I know you have issues with fighting, George.

George has some problems about fighting other people.

I know you have issues with fighting George.

Someone doesn’t want to fight George.

I’m good at my job, Cooper, but stuff happens.

Someone is telling Cooper that he’s good at his job.

I’m good at my job Cooper but stuff happens.

Sounds like an explanation. As if this guy has a job as a Cooper, but something happened at work.

Bro, doin’ good.

In this one, it sounds as if one guy is telling another that he is doing well.

Bro doin’ good.

Sounds like one guy telling another guy that a third guy is doing well.

Jane, bring me that coffee.

A command sentence demanding that Jane bring whoever is speaking that coffee.

Jane bring me that coffee.

Someone is still learning how to speak English.

Aww, pumpkin, who’s a little squoogie-wootsits?

Okay, so “pumpkin” is someone’s nickname for a person, and probably a very young one.

Aww pumpkin who’s a little squoogie-wootsits?

It’s a type of pumpkin that some madwoman thinks is either cute or rotting.

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