Commas to Show the Vocative Case

by Craig Shrives

Commas to Show the Vocative Case

Names that are being addressed directly are said to be in the "vocative case." When somebody is being spoken to directly, their name must be separated from the rest of the sentence with a comma (or commas). For example (vocative-case words shaded):
  • 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.")
  • 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.)
  • It was a real monster Dick.
  • ("Dick" should be preceded by a comma as "Dick" is being addressed.)
  • Here is an example from a magazine:

  • (As someone being addressed as "peasant," the comma is correct.)
commas with the vocative case

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 with commas to show they are in the vocative case. For example:
  • Ollie, fetch the stick like a good dog.
  • ("Ollie" is being addressed. The commas is correct.)
  • You are a great car, you little beauty.
  • (The car is being addressed directly as "you little beauty.")
  • To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness. (Playwright Oscar Wilde)
  • ("Mr Worthing" being addressed directly.)
  • Dammit, sir, it is your duty to get married. You can't be always living for pleasure. (Playwright Oscar Wilde)
  • (Someone being addressed directly as "sir.")
  • Here is a witty example from a sign on a farmer's gate:

  • (Taken literally, this sign is telling cows to keep their dogs under control.)

The "Vocative Comma" Could Be Important!

The examples below show why it is important to understand the vocative case. While both are correct, they have 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!
Interactive Exercise
Here are three randomly selected questions from a larger exercise, which can be edited, printed to create an exercise worksheet, or sent via email to friends or students.

See Also

Commas with the vocative case Commas with Dear, Hello, and Hi