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In a letter, we say "Dear Alexthecampbell," before starting the body. We then capitalize the first letter of the next sentence.

Since the salutation functions like a header and isn't part of the next sentence, why is there a need for a comma at all, and how did this start?

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  • I meant to say "isn't part of the next sentence" Commented Nov 20, 2020 at 22:33
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    I don't know the history and so I wouldn't presume to answer, but I would think that the salutation was part of the first sentence and at some point a custom arose to off set that salutation. Grammatically we'd expect "Dear John" to be part of a longer sentence, like in, "My God, why have you forsaken me?"
    – Juhasz
    Commented Nov 20, 2020 at 22:41
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    As always, the best criteria for comma usage should depend on a reading: if you feel the need for a breath or pause, put a comma. Apart from that, is this for a personal friend, or business acquaintance?///It's convention, that's all. Commented Nov 20, 2020 at 23:05
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    Note that the salutation likely was not originally placed on a separate line.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Nov 20, 2020 at 23:13
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    @Cascabel - I mean parchment was relatively precious at one time, and people would not have wasted it with needless "whitespace".
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Nov 20, 2020 at 23:26

2 Answers 2

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Using a comma before or after naming the person who your speech is directed at, just indicates that direction. Like:

Hey, John, how’s it going?

It is used to direct speech and guide the reader to understand who the message is intended for.

I imagine it was always used.

The use of white space— beginning the body of the letter on a separate line— may simply be to make it easier to make out the greeting from the body, and to create a nicer appearance easier on the eye.

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The comma after a salutation is a 'vocative comma'. It is used to indicate a shift from vocative case to nominative case.

Its oral use no doubt predates the history of punctuation.

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