Grammar Monster
Grammar Monster

Vocative case and commas

The Quick Answer
Separate the name of the person (or thing) you are addressing from the rest of the sentence with a comma.

What is the Vocative Case?

Names that are being addressed directly are said to be in the vocative case. When somebody is being spoken to directly, his/her name must be separated from the rest of the sentence with a comma (or commas).

  • I'll see you next Tuesday, Alan.
  • (Alan is being addressed. His name must be separated from the rest of the sentence with a comma. The word Alan is said to be in the vocative case.)
    (Vocative stems from the word vocal.)

  • …and that, your Honour, is the case for the Prosecution.
  • (The judge is being addressed as your Honour. These words are in the vocative case and must be separated from the rest of the sentence with commas.)
  • Lee, you would know all about that wouldn't you, you little adventurer?
  • (Lee is being addressed by his name and as you little adventurer. Both Lee and you little adventurer are in the vocative case.)
  • ...and that was the end of the monster Dick.
  • (Dick should be preceded by a comma as Dick is being addressed.)

  someone being addressed as peasant – comma is correct
(magazine clipping)

Anything Can Be in the Vocative Case

Animals, even inanimate objects, can be addressed directly.  They should also be separated from the rest of the sentence to show they are in the vocative case.

  • Ollie, fetch the stick like a good dog.
  • (Ollie is being addressed – comma used)

  • You are my favourite car, you little beauty.
  • (car being addressed directly as you little beauty – comma used)
  • To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness. (Oscar Wilde)
  • (Mr Worthing being addressed directly – commas used)
  • Dammit, sir, it is your duty to get married. You can't be always living for pleasure. (Oscar Wilde)
  • (Someone being addressed directly as sir – commas used)

Literally, this sign is telling cows to keep their dogs under control
(sign on gate to field)

Could Be Important

The examples below show why it is important to understand the vocative case. Whilst both are correct, they have very different meanings.
  • Tell us about that fruitcake.
  • (In this example, the interviewer would like to know about a specific fruitcake.)
  • Tell us about that, fruitcake.
  • (In this example, the interviewer is addressing the interviewee as fruitcake.)
President Clinton may have used the vocative case very cleverly in his claim:
  • ...I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinski.
  • (President Clinton could claim that he was speaking directly to Miss Lewinski, and the identification of "that woman" was between him and Miss Lewinksi.)

Did Bill Clinton use the vocative case to ensure his statement was "legally accurate"? The pause before he says "Miss Lewinski" could have been deliberate to ensure her name was put in the vocative case. Now, that's some smart legal counsel!