Commas before names: the ‘vocative comma’

The vocative comma is a comma that separates the name of a person we are writing or talking to from the rest of a sentence: put more simply, it separates the name of the person we are writing to from what we are writing about. (The name vocative come from a Latin word that means to call, so the vocative comma is one that introduces the name of a person we are calling out to.) Compare these two sentences: the first with a vocative comma, and the second without.

Can you send me that email from your friend, Gabby?

Can you send me that email from your friend Gabby?

The meaning of the first sentence is that I am asking Gabby to send me an email from her friend. The second sentence means I am asking someone (whose name is not given) to send me an email from Gabby, who is her (or his) friend.  If we are speaking, we would indicate the difference in meaning with a slight pause; in writing, we use a vocative comma.

If the name of the person appears at the start of sentence, we use the vocative comma after the name; we can also put the name of the person in the middle of a sentence with vocative commas either side:

Gabby, can you send that email from your friend?

Can you send me, Gabby, that email from your friend?

Vocative commas really highlight the main overall role of commas: to group words together for meaning. Consider the difference in meaning a single vocative comma makes in these two sentences:

I don’t like your friend Gabby.

I don’t like your friend, Gabby.

In the first sentence, I am telling someone that I don’t like Gabby; in the second sentence, I am telling Gabby that I don’t like her friend. The vocative comma has separated Gabby from the other words that, as a group, explain whom I don’t like.

Commas: small punctuation marks that make a mighty difference to meaning!

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