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Is there any alternative punctuation to eliminate the ambiguity between the vocative comma and the list comma in a sentence like "John, Paul, George, and Ringo arrived earlier." The idea is that I'm speaking to John.

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    You're purely looking for punctuation rather than rephrasing or ways of speaking it out loud? There are a variety of forms of address from "Hey John" to "O John".
    – Stuart F
    Commented Feb 14, 2023 at 11:21
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    @StuartF I think your point is salient, as I feel like the syntax isn't the sole source of confusion here. Try saying it out loud: "John, Paul, George and Ringo arrived earlier." I suspect that even John might be momentarily confused by such a statement.
    – Him
    Commented Feb 14, 2023 at 15:19
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    Be aware that the sentence could also mean: you are addressing John and Paul. Ambiguity is ubiquitous in English, it's uninteresting and unsurprising.
    – Fattie
    Commented Feb 14, 2023 at 15:53
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    In speech, the difference is carried by intonation. In writing, if you keep that structure, there is no way to tell...
    – Lambie
    Commented Feb 14, 2023 at 17:05
  • What kind of dialogue attribution are you using? Is it an option to say something such as: "John," she called out, "Paul, George, and Ringo arrived earlier." Or maybe, if no attribution can be used: "John." "Yes?" "Paul, George, and Ringo arrived earlier."
    – Brian Tung
    Commented Feb 15, 2023 at 18:34

6 Answers 6

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If you think about the conditions under which such an utterance might occur, and then think about the intonation with which it might be delivered, you can probably come up with some suitable punctuation.

John—Paul, George, and Ringo arrived earlier. (neutral, by-the-way, matter-of-fact)

John! Paul, George, and Ringo arrived earlier. (exasperation, elation)

John? Paul, George, and Ringo arrived earlier. (concern, consternation)

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    An excellent and perfect answer.
    – Fattie
    Commented Feb 14, 2023 at 15:45
  • I'd read the first one as three people, the first of them named "John-Paul". Yes, it's an em-dash, not a hyphen, but on a quick read it's not obviously different. Commented Feb 15, 2023 at 14:30
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The standard "comma's comma" in English is a semicolon. A modern equivalent for this which is becoming increasingly common is a double dash.

Examples:

John; Paul, George, and Ringo arrived earlier.
John--Paul, George, and Ringo arrived earlier.

However, punctuation in a specific case like this is tricky. The semicolon may appear like a typo. The use of a full colon may be an option.

John: Paul, George, and Ringo arrived earlier.

However, this would not work in a dialogue where the speakers were being identified in this fashion.

A century ago, a colon+hyphen might have been used. This usage is virtually extinct today, but this is a case where it may have been quite helpful.

John:--Paul, George, and Ringo arrived earlier.

My personal preference in this situation would be to go with the double-dash option, i.e. "John--Paul, George, and Ringo arrived earlier."

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    This use of a semicolon is quite rare outside of formal academic writing.
    – alphabet
    Commented Feb 14, 2023 at 7:11
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    @alphabet Perhaps so, but whenever lists of lists are involved, it becomes quite useful.
    – Biblasia
    Commented Feb 14, 2023 at 7:18
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    Double dashes are even more outdated than this use of the semicolon. What you’ve actually written, though, are double hyphens, which have absolutely no use at all anywhere. Standard practice would be to use a single dash (not a hypen) – either an en dash surrounded by spaces (generally preferred in British English) or an em dash without spaces (generally preferred in American English). Commented Feb 14, 2023 at 11:55
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    The semicolon is unheard of and would never be used in the situation asked about.
    – Fattie
    Commented Feb 14, 2023 at 15:47
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    The colon is the best new suggestion here, I think.
    – keshlam
    Commented Feb 15, 2023 at 6:02
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Dion--

I would just rephrase it, and put the vocative at the end: Paul, George, and Ringo are arriving later, John.

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    "Real writers rewrite to avoid the problem," to quote the IBMTEXT discussion's mantra.
    – keshlam
    Commented Feb 15, 2023 at 6:04
  • This is the real answer. If there is no perfect punctuation solution to the problem, rewrite. That's what you get paid for.
    – Robusto
    Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 22:10
  • Robusto. That's philosophically challenging. The real answer to the question is ... the real answer to the actual question. Sure, one should add a footnote "but you wouldn't do that, you'd do what Charles says."
    – Fattie
    Commented Feb 19, 2023 at 16:22
  • Whatever that means.
    – Robusto
    Commented Feb 22, 2023 at 19:24
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In addition to the options that Tinfoil Hat suggested, the most natural punctuation here might be a colon:

John: George, Paul and Ringo arrived earlier.

In a newspaper headline, this would mean something different, that John was the one who said the others arrived earlier. If it’s clear in context who is speaking, though, this works fine.

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    If it means what you say, the inverted commas for speech marks would be before George, not before John.
    – Tim
    Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 9:49
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Answering the actual question.

Is there any alternative punctuation to eliminate the ambiguity

The two most common ways to do it:

John ... Paul, George and Ringo [etc].

And don't forget this option:

John. Paul, George and Ringo [etc].

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    I would recommend against this, as ellipsis is supposed to mean that there omitted words.
    – Davislor
    Commented Feb 15, 2023 at 2:05
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    Ellipsis is ... well, sometimes used to express a pause rather than an omission.
    – keshlam
    Commented Feb 15, 2023 at 6:03
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    @Davislor it's not. It's only used now to mean a pause, breath, thinking space. The original meaning is gone. The new meaning is probably used around 100,000:1 over the old meaning. (Unfortunately) language changes. I'm still trying to convince people to use apocryphal the correct way, rather than the incorrect new meaning.
    – Fattie
    Commented Feb 15, 2023 at 11:31
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    An ellipsis with spaces on both sides very much looks like it is marking omitted words. If it's only indicating a pause then it should not have a space on the left. IMO. Commented Feb 15, 2023 at 11:42
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    heh that's a fine point @curiousdannii
    – Fattie
    Commented Feb 15, 2023 at 12:44
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In writing: "Paul, George, and Ringo arrived earlier, John."

In speech, the difference is carried by intonation. In writing, if you keep that structure, there is no way to tell...

And vocative comma does not exist. :)

The other punctuation given in other answers (colons etc.) is simply not used to designate a speaker in contemporary writing.

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