Reality shows sometimes resort to on-screen captioning when the dialogue goes mumbly or gets scattered by noise. News programs do the same thing, for example, for heavy accents and 911 tapes. People do not speak orthographically; what they say must be interpreted into the symbols we call writing, and those symbols include more than letters. These on-screen transcriptions do a reasonably good job of presenting the spoken word within the standard expectations of spelling and usually (not always, alas) get the homophones correct. But punctuation is a different story. In particular, nobody seems to understand that direct address requires distinctive treatment to avoid syntactical hash.
We interpret the spoken word differently than we do the written word. The spoken word is always context specific; the written word is always outside the context and must be specified. If the person next to you says “The house is on fire!” you hear the urgency, and you can probably turn and see the flames and feel the heat. If you read the same words, you’re probably far from the fire in time and space, but the quotation marks tell you someone actually spoke the words, and the exclamation point conveys the sense of urgency. Like tone and emphasis in speech, punctuation works with syntax to create meaning in a written communication.
When you address someone directly, that is, call them by their name or title or honorific (e.g., sir), that instance of direct address is grammatically isolated from any other part of the sentence in which it appears: we say to Bob, “I heard, Bob, and I laughed.” In speech, we can emphasize this separation by a slight pause, but because Bob is actually present, context alone makes the meaning clear. In writing, we must isolate the address with commas as a parenthetical element that is not participating in the grammar. (I.e., the commas are not replicating the spoken pause so much as they are visually fencing off that which is grammatically irrelevant.) If we do not set it off, Bob becomes the direct object of the verb heard because, grammatically speaking, that is how we must read the sentence as written: “I heard Bob and I laughed.”
Failure to set off a direct address with a comma may cause great embarrassment or great amusement. A desktop sign seen in a recent catalog reads “Work with me people.” This is clearly advice to work with egotists, not a direct address pleading for cooperation, which would require a comma: “Work with me, people.” “John get the phone” is pidgin for “John gets (or is getting or got) the phone”; a demand that the phone be answered requires an indication of direct address and the imperative: “John, get the phone.” “Don’t hassle me dad” is a Briton’s command to leave his father alone; “Don’t hassle me, Dad” is a plea from son to father for some peace. Note the capital D on Dad. A title used as an address is capitalized: “This is my aunt Mary,” but “Welcome, Aunt Mary!” Now note that without the comma to show direct address, this becomes a command: “Welcome Aunt Mary!”
Another thing that is always set off with commas because it has no grammatical role is an interjection. Many interjections appear in company with the exclamation point that underlines their emphasis: Hey, you, outta my yard! (interjection followed by direct address); Oh, man, is it cold! (two interjections back to back, or perhaps again an interjection followed by direct address); Haven’t seen you in, jeez, 30 years! (euphemistic interjection in midsentence). Swear words and obscenities not participating in the grammar are set off as interjections: “Shit, where’s my cell?” but “Get your shit together.”
There is a new animated Christmas special premiering this December called Yes Virginia. The first word is an interjection, and the second is a direct address, providing two imperatives for separating these words with a comma. I suppose it’s too late for them to change all the ads and titles and unembarrass themselves? Gee, guys, that’s a shame—on you.
If you’re talkin’ ta me, baby, you better get it right.
This is article 17 in a continuing series. © 2009 Christine C. Janson