Sunday, August 28, 2011

Commas and Vocatives

When you address someone directly in speech, that form of address is called a "vocative" (from the Latin verb vocare, to call out; compare the English word "invoke"). The vocative address is set off from the rest of the sentence with a comma (or with two commas if the vocative is inside the sentence). Here are some examples:

  • The knights of the Round Table salute you, King Arthur!
  • Lancelot, you must go and rescue Queen Guinevere!
  • You are very wise, Merlin, but your knowledge has its limits!

It is very important that you include the comma(s) in these sentences. If you do not include the correct punctuation, it can change the meaning of the sentence. Examples:

  • The hungry sailors said, "Let's eat Odysseus!" (This would mean the hungry sailors are cannibals, ready to eat Odysseus.)
  • The hungry sailors said, "Let's eat, Odysseus!" (The comma lets us know that the sailors are speaking to Odysseus, inviting him to join in the meal.)
~ ~ ~

  • Prince Charming shouted, "Stop Cinderella!" (The prince is ordering his servants to run after Cinderella and stop her before she escapes.)
  • Prince Charming shouted, "Stop, Cinderella!" (Here Prince Charming is speaking directly to Cinderella, commanding her to stop.)
~ ~ ~

  • On his way out of the bedroom, Paris said, "I will return Helen." (Paris must be speaking to himself; apparently he has decided to return Helen to her husband Menelaus in order to put an end to the Trojan War!)
  • On his way out of the bedroom, Paris said, "I will return, Helen." (In this statement, Paris has no intention of returning Helen to her husband; instead, he is speaking directly to Helen, promising her that he will come back and dally with her later.)

So, make sure you use the vocative comma wisely: the meaning of the sentence depends on it!

On his way out of the bedroom,
Paris said, "I will return, Helen."

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