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I've been trying to find an answer to this question for some time, and have finally decided to... well, buck up some courage and ask.

In sentences like these two

"Hello, Mary, how are you?"
"Don't touch that, John, it'll explode!"

is the comma after the name (Mary, John) a comma splice or not? I can understand that for instances like the following

"I can't believe, Howard, that you've put the duck in there."

the name is technically parenthetical, but it feels to me like the first two are clearly not. In the first two cases, I'd be much happier if the latter was replaced by a period or had a suitable conjunction added in. It feels to me, here, like the vocative is being used to justify attaching two independent clauses together in a similar manner to a comma splice, and is thus an error.

Any thoughts/information on this? I'll appreciate any answers anyone could give me on this, even if they are just 'Duh, that's obvious'. It's been bugging me for a while.

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Not intended as an answer. IMHO department: I'd consider the use of the 1st comma as incorrect (or at least non-preferred) in both of the 1st two examples that you give. You would not write "Hello, Mary" and would hardly write "Don't touch that, John". –  Russell McMahon Oct 20 '12 at 13:31
    
@Russell McMahon ~ I think so too. Either the names in the first two examples are parenthetical, which would be odd but not impossible, or the first comma in both example has no purpose. –  Roaring Fish Oct 20 '12 at 13:40
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Well, there are people who believe the Bible, that Christ {will come again}. OP needs a comma before Howard to reflect the pause in speech that makes it clear Howard is being directly addressed, not cited as an unbelievable source. –  FumbleFingers Oct 20 '12 at 13:42
    
@FumbleFingers ~ the 'Howard' in the third example is definitely parenthetical as the OP says. It is parenthetical as 'you've' makes it clear who is being addressed. "I can't believe that you've put the duck in there" works perfectly without 'Howard'. –  Roaring Fish Oct 20 '12 at 14:22
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@Roaring Fish: As does "I can't believe [the Bible] that Christ will come again". The difference is if you interpolate "Howard" in OP's example, it's a "parenthetical addressee" that has to be preceded by a pause (reflected in written form by a comma). I suppose in my example "the Bible" is an optional "indirect object" - but it certainly mustn't be preceded by a comma, or it doesn't make sense (unless you're metaphorically addressing "the Bible"). –  FumbleFingers Oct 20 '12 at 14:29

4 Answers 4

I would consider the second sentence borderline unacceptable, the direct address masking the comma splice. Better would be

Don't touch that, John. It'll explode.

The first comma is necessary in direct address. Although it gets left out in emails and texts and chat quite often, in more formal writing you would always use it:

Hello, Mary.
How are you, Mark?
What's up, Doc?
Did you find your slippers, dear?

Finally,

Don't touch that John.

would seem to be cautioning people not to touch a certain individual named John.

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I would think either a colon or a semicolon would fit after John, depending on the shade of meaning intended. But +1 for a clear explanation (and, if I could, another +1 for explosive John). –  TimLymington Oct 20 '12 at 14:27
    
@TimLymington: Yes, you could use a semicolon there for a softer break, or a colon to express the final clause as the logical consequence of the warning. –  Robusto Oct 20 '12 at 14:40
    
This doesn't explain the case in point, even if it were hypothetical or uncommon in use. –  Kris Oct 20 '12 at 15:03

The point is in these instances that it is dialogue, and thus the text is a reflection of the idiomatic qualities of the speakers rather than technically correct English. If it is dialogue, and there is a slight pause, it would seem natural to insert a comma.

So "Hello.. Mary.. how are you?" as opposed to "Hello Mary; how are you?"

So when we talk about written dialogue we generally discuss how it can most accurately capture the cadence, stumbles, and import of the tone of the speaker, rather than what the speaker specifically means.

I think the technical properties would only take precedence in the vocative case in the rare instances where the writer addresses the reader in the vocative case, in some sort of imagined writer role (i.e. not the author speaking in a personal manner as his or herself).

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Since you have also given an example to show what you expressly exclude: I can't believe, Howard, that you've put the duck in there.

We can with reasonable certainty say you are focused on the particular sentence structure:
Hello, Mary, how are you?
Don't touch that, John, it'll explode!

(phrase)comma (address)comma (phrase)period

This is only a special case of parenthetical insertion in a normal sentence, where the parenthetical is an address. As such the commas are natural and both are required.

I do not think comma splicing is in any way relevant here. (Wikipedia: Comma splicing is the use of a comma to join two independent clauses instead of a conjunction, semicolon, or period/full stop.)

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When it occurs in the written record of direct speech, a vocative is normally what Larry Trask calls a weak interruption. He advises:

Use a pair of bracketing commas to set off a weak interruption which could be removed from the sentence without destroying it.

On that basis, the commas are appropriate in ‘Hello, Mary, how are you?’ and ‘I can't believe, Howard, that you've put the duck in there.’ The remaining sentence is different in that it contains two finite clauses which need to be separated, or else joined by some device other than a comma. They could be joined by the conjunction or: ‘Don't touch that, John, or it'll explode!’ But if that isn’t what the speaker actually said, the speech needs to be presented as two separate sentences. So, as Robusto has suggested, ‘Don't touch that, John. It'll explode!"

On a separate point, English has no ‘vocative case’. Mary, John and Howard are performing a vocative function in the examples given, but they are not inflected forms.

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