The Writer’s Toolbox – I’m Talkin’ to You

Have you ever, during the course of a conversation, used the name of the person (or object!) you were speaking to? That’s a noun of direct address.

Chances are you gave it very little thought, and That’s perfectly normal. But if you tried to put it in writing?especially if you were writing dialogue?you might have struggled with punctuation. In this mini-series we’ll look at using nouns of direct address: where to put commas and whether to capitalize.

Save Grandma’s Life!
The general rule is easy: set off direct address nouns with a comma (or a pair of commas, if It’s in the middle of the sentence). You do this because the noun of direct address is separate from the sentence?and because it avoids confusion.

The Let’s eat, Grandma!/Let’s eat Grandma! meme is a great illustration of what can happen when you don’t follow the general rule. Grandma is a noun of direct address, and if you don’t set it off with a comma, it becomes the object of the verb eat (and the butt of many jokes).

Beginning or End
The general rule applies whether the direct address noun is at the beginning of the sentence:

Example A: Sarah, what’s the matter?

…or at the end:

Example B: We really need to talk about this, John.

…or somewhere in the middle:

Example C: I think, Sarah, that You’re reading too much into it.

Not Just Names
Note that direct address nouns don’t need to be proper nouns, like Sarah; if You’re using a common noun to directly address someone or something, treat it like the direct address examples above.

Example D: I’m telling you, ma?am, I wasn’t involved.

Example E: Students, please open your textbooks to chapter 12.

And noun phrases?a noun with modifiers like adjectives?are also set off by commas, if they’re used in direct address.

Example F: Damn you, you worthless, overpriced printer! Here the sentence?noun and verb?is “Damn you”; “you worthless, overpriced printer” is set off with commas because You’re directly addressing the overpriced printer that has broken yet again.

That’s it for the general rule, and It’s easy to remember if you think about saving Grandma. Next week we’ll cover the general rule in a little more depth, including things you may need to watch out for. Then we’ll move on to capitalization in direct address. we’ll end here with a final example:

Example G: If you still have questions about direct address, dear reader, then come back and visit next week.

Christina M. Frey is a book editor, literary coach, and lover of great writing. For more tips and techniques for your toolbox, follow her on Twitter (@turntopage2) or visit her blog.

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