(1) Hello John. (2) Hello, John?

(3) How are you today John? (4) How are you today, John?

(5) I wish I could John. (6) I wish I could, John.

Must there always be a comma before someone's name?

  • @tchrist Don't use a comma when you're talking about someone.
    – Keiran
    Commented Jul 26, 2014 at 23:54
  • Probably Yahoo.
    – Keiran
    Commented Jul 27, 2014 at 0:03
  • Yahoo is a style guide?
    – tchrist
    Commented Jul 27, 2014 at 0:04
  • 1
    Nouns of direct address are set off by commas on each side, Kieran, unless that side should be a sentence boundary fore or aft.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jul 27, 2014 at 0:17
  • 1
    Don't know why "someone's name" is anything special at all. All the OP's examples contain a main clause, separated from the rest of the sentence by an appropriate comma. Hello, are you there? How are you today, by the way? I wish I could, though. How's it any different?
    – Kris
    Commented Jul 27, 2014 at 6:27

3 Answers 3


The person to whom one or more sentences are addressed, as their specifically intended audience, can be directly identified and/or recognized with a noun (“Don’t go there, man!”) or a noun phrase (“Don’t go there, old man!”); and in either case the noun may be a proper name. Such an insertion in a sentence can conveniently be termed a vocative, after the actual noun case that distinguishes such insertions in Greek and especially Latin. English, having no such distinctive noun case, brackets these insertions with punctuation: between commas usually, or occasionally between em dashes, or between one such mark and either end of a sentence. Such insertions are parenthetical in character, which means they stand largely or wholly apart from the syntax of those sentences in which they occur.

These punctuational clues are pretty strongly required in written English to prevent our misreading the vocative as something else. In spoken English, however, the overall and largely nonverbal context tends to make the distinction plenty clear. For this reason, commas used to set off vocatives reflect vocal rhythm and inflection far less than most other commas do. Spoken sentences that include vocatives tend to sound very much as if those commas simply were not there. This is a potential source of confusion regarding such commas.

For instance, in the forest rehearsal scene of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Quince directly addresses his players by their character names, and practically every modern edition uses commas to set off the vocatives, since present-day readers depend on them to identify vocatives as such:

Speak, Pyramus. Thisbe, stand forth.

The first quarto, however, omits them:

Speake Pyramus: Thyſby ſtand forth.

This omission may not be merely at the whim of the typesetter; it corresponds to a thoroughly defensible and arguably optimal way of delivering the line.

One can analyze the letter salutation “Dear John” as a noun phrase comprising a proper name and an adjective modifying it, functioning as a vocative, and therefore sandwiched between the real beginning of the letter’s first sentence and a following comma. But the salutation is a very specialized context with rules and conventions of its own, so this might finally not be the most appropriate way to analyze it. For one thing, the salutation is not typically read as a part of the first sentence but as relating to all the letter’s sentences more or less equally. For another, the “Dear John” letter stereotypically functions to advise John that he is no longer dear.

  • 1
    English has a vocative in "O" although it's rarely used now.
    – Casey
    Commented Jul 27, 2014 at 16:04

Yes, because you are addressing the person. This is in grammars that have the vocative case, and the term is occasionally used in English (grammar). I think of it as the vocative. In English, nouns don't change to reflect this use like Latin, whence the word vocative comes.

A very famous example of the vocative is in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar: "Et tu, Brute?"

The line is delivered in Latin, and here the vocative case is shown through the difference between Brute (vocative) and Brutus (nominative). You'll have to scroll in the link.

which in English is: "and you, Brutus?"

All of your examples are instances of the " vocative case ".

  • 2
    Bring me my bow of burning gold! / Bring me my arrows of desire! / Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold! / Bring me my chariot of fire!
    – tchrist
    Commented Jul 27, 2014 at 0:07

No, you do not. For example,

The vaguely worded question was flippantly answered by George.

has no comma at all.

(edit, so this isn't a terrible answer if you edit your question)

In the case of greetings such as the ones you wrote in your question, yes, a comma is necessary. In some cases, though, such as the greeting "Dear John" at the beginning of a letter, there is no comma before the name, but rather after.

  • Well clearly that has to do with the function "dear" is serving here; it's part of the form of address.
    – Casey
    Commented Jul 27, 2014 at 3:52
  • Although you do end up with weird cases -- I see e-mails begin "Hi John," frequently but never "Hi, John,".
    – Casey
    Commented Jul 27, 2014 at 3:53
  • I don't see how these comments connect to my answer.
    – user85526
    Commented Jul 27, 2014 at 4:46
  • 1
    You don't see how my comment that there's no comma in "Dear John" because the recipient is being called not just "John" but "dear John" is connected to your assertion that "In some cases, such as the greeting 'Dear John' at the beginning of a letter, there is no comma before the name?"
    – Casey
    Commented Jul 27, 2014 at 4:53
  • It seems to be agreeing with me completely, but phrased in a way to strangely indicate disagreement. My phrasing was wrong, as it does connect to my answer.
    – user85526
    Commented Jul 27, 2014 at 4:58

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