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Another comma goes AWOL

The Super Bowl is over, thank heavens, so all those incorrectly punctuated signs rooting for one team or another can come down.

You know the ones: They say “Go Giants” or “Go Patriots.”

In telling the Giants (or Patriots—no partisanship here) to “go,” the sign is making a direct address to the team. And in direct addresses, the person or thing being addressed demands a comma. Those signs should read “Go, Giants,” or “Go, Patriots.” (An exclamation point wouldn’t hurt, either.)

The comma in direct addresses has become one of the most forgotten uses of the poor period-with-a-tail.

A direct address is just what it sounds like: The writer is addressing someone or something directly, be it a football team, a group of people, or an individual. A direct address can occur at the beginning of a sentence: “Friends, I have come here today to ask for your vote.” It can come at the end: “When you enter that voting booth, think of me, Ohioans.” Or it can come in the middle: “And so, my fellow Americans, I ask for your support.” Note that when it’s in the middle, it’s set off by two commas: They often travel in pairs.

You can make the argument that the comma isn’t always needed. A letter that begins with the direct address “Dear Sir or Madam” can be followed by a comma, or by a colon. People can write “Hi Bob” and get away with it, in part because “Hi” is already so informal that adding that comma seems somehow wrong.

So why use it at all?

“Lets Eat Grandpa!”

That’s an example has been passed around for years by grammarians and copy editors, under the heading “Punctuation saves lives.” That comma before “Grandpa” makes all the difference in the world (The phrase even has a Facebook page, and you can buy T-shirts with that expression on it, too.)

In most cases, though, leaving off the comma won’t cause a lot of confusion, so no need to obsess over it. As always, let your audience be your guide. But do watch out for what Bill Walsh noted in Lapsing Into a Comma, about a chat between “a starlet named Alicia and her fawning male fans.” As Walsh writes:

“At the end of the session, someone typed Thanks for coming by Alicia. If you don’t see the problem with that, you don’t have the dirty mind that every good copy editor needs.”

Friends hope you understand that.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl. Tags: , , , , ,