I write stuff like this:

Karen, our team can help you.

However, in this case I wrote:

Karen, Mike and Joe can help you.

I was trying to tell Karen that Mike and Joe could help her. However, she read it as "Karen, Mike and Joe together could help someone else."

How was I supposed to punctuate this?

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    You could have added a line break after "Karen,". – Peter Shor Jan 30 '14 at 21:34
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    I agree with @PeterShor. A line break would be best in an email, but I would probably use a hyphen in a few instances. – emsoff Jan 30 '14 at 21:37
  • @PeterShor Wouldn't a semi-colon have worked? "Karen; Mike and Joe can help you." – Mari-Lou A Jan 30 '14 at 21:39
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    @Mari-Lou: I would prefer a hyphen (or dash, if it's not email) to a semi-colon. Or add a greeting and use a period: "Hi Karen. Mike and Joe can help you." Semi-colons and colons might be viewed as overly formal. – Peter Shor Jan 30 '14 at 21:42
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    I think a colon would function better than a semi-colon there, mostly because the semi-colon would imply a continuity of thought that doesn't really exist. The colon indicates a list follows. – Kit Z. Fox Jan 30 '14 at 21:56

This is a similar problem posed by the serial comma, and I generally recommend rephrasing the statement for clarity:


Karen, Mike and Joe can help you.


Mike and Joe can help you Karen.

If you'd like to keep "Karen" at the beginning of the sentence, alternative punctuation can work:


Karen - Mike and Joe can help you.

Em dash (punctuationally more better)

Karen — Mike and Joe can help you.


Karen: Mike and Joe can help you.

I don't recommend colons though as they're commonly used for dialog:

Karen: Mike and Joe can help you.
Steve: Thanks Karen!

  • @RegDwigнt, I was wondering if someone would try to correct that. I intentionally used a hyphen, because it's possible to reasonably type a hyphen in most circumstances. Although it might be more "proper" to use an em dash, it's so inconvenient that it's becoming irrelevant outside of formal publications. – zzzzBov Jan 31 '14 at 0:02
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    It's 2014. It is trivial to type and display a dash in most circumstances. Where it still is not, the workaround is to use two hyphens, not one. A hyphen is not a dash. It is about as suitable a replacement for a dash as a semicolon is a suitable replacement for a colon. (Also, this has nothing to do with grammar, so your edit is incorrect in that regard as well.) – RegDwigнt Jan 31 '14 at 0:27
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    @Reg There are some who maintain that punctuation and syntax are not disjoint. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 31 '14 at 1:27
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    @RegDwigнt, you're right that grammatically was the wrong word. However, I do disagree with your assertion that "it is trivial to type and display a dash in most circumstances". It's quite trivial to display a dash, certainly, with UTF-8 support being what it is, but to type the dash usually requires scrounging around through lists of special characters. Some email clients make it easy to find emdash (gmail), while others (outlook) hide it behind a series of menus and dialogues. The whole point is to disambiguate the sentence. – zzzzBov Jan 31 '14 at 3:13

A colon is correct here. You're splitting the sentence and what follows the colon is a list of things (people) you're addressing.

"Karen: Mike and Joe can help you with this."

I'm not a fan of the semicolon for the reasons mentioned. I think the hyphen is also perfectly acceptable, though it's less formal than a colon. So I'd choose from the hyphen/colon according to the level of formality you're reaching for.

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    I don't recommend colons as they're commonly used to indicate a quote from an individual. – zzzzBov Jan 30 '14 at 22:49
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    @BlackVegetable: In what contexts? zzzzBov: oh you know, when you want to show some dialog. BlackVegetable: oh, I hadn't thought of that. Thanks for being so awesome! zzzzBov: no problem, any time. – zzzzBov Jan 30 '14 at 22:58
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    Haha, agreed. However, in many contexts I don't think this would be a source of confusion. – BlackVegetable Jan 30 '14 at 23:00
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    A hyphen would never be appropriate here. A dash would be fine, but never a hyphen. As for dash vs. colon, they imply different things to me. If making it clear that you are addressing Karen (as an opening statement), I'd use a colon. If noting something for Karen in particular (but located in a text to be read by a group of people), I'd use a dash: “We’ll talk about the details at the meeting: I expect everyone to be well-prepared. Karen – Mike and Josh can help you get the necessary papers” for example. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 30 '14 at 23:22
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    @JanusBahsJacquet, how about minus instead of hyphen? I know I'm probably getting myself in all sorts of trouble when I say this, but hyphen, dash, and minus are all the same character when used informally (-). There are few who are willing to spend the additional time while typing up an email to find and inject the correct symbol because it's simply cumbersome. It might be more appropriate to double the hyphen character to emulate an emdash, but either way the text reads correctly so long as you don't forget spaces. Karen-Mike could be taken as someone's name. – zzzzBov Jan 31 '14 at 0:11

Use a colon.

Karen: Mike and Joe can help you.

One of the functions of the colon is to set the context for the sentence that is to follow, so this usage is appropriate. It's also clear, unambiguous, and a standard in US business correspondence:

Dear Mr. Doe:

Thank you for your letter of ...

Alternatively, you can put it at the end of the sentence like this:

Mike and Joe can help you, Karen.

But that has the disadvantage that Karen has to read to the end of the sentence before she realises that the remark is addressed to her.

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