5 Answers to Questions About Direct Address

By Mark Nichol

1. I want to tell athletes at my school, where the mascot is a wildcat, to be proud of their team’s accomplishment. Should I write, “Be proud Wildcats” or “Be proud, Wildcats”? I see things like this written all the time without a comma, but something tells me I should include one.

You’re right. Both exhortations are correct, but if you write, “Be proud Wildcats,” you’re telling your readers to be proud Wildcats. “Be proud, Wildcats” is addressed directly to the athletes; you’re telling the Wildcats to be proud. It’s a subtle difference, but the version with the comma conveys the meaning you want.

Also, when pondering whether to write something the way you see it all the time, consider the source: Direct address shows up a lot in informal, conversational (and frequently careless) writing such as email messages and written notes, but in published form, a comma generally (and correctly) separates the term of address from the statement.

2. One issue that comes up in my email communication is the situation in which I am addressing a known group of families, ladies, parents, or students. If I begin my email with “Hello, Ladies,” should “Ladies” be capitalized?

According to The Gregg Reference Manual, in the salutation of a letter (or an email message) — a form of direct address — capitalize the first word and all nouns.

3. When should familial terms like mom be capitalized?

Capitalize mom and related words when the term is a form of direct address substituting for a name: You’re asking, “Can I go see a movie, Mom?” just as you would ask, “Can I go see a movie, Jane?”

When you speak of your mother to another person, substituting mom for her name, the word, for the same reason, is capitalized: Compare “I asked Mom if I could go see a movie” and “I asked Jane if I could go see a movie.”

But if you precede mom with a pronoun, it is a generic noun, equivalent to a designation for any other person: “I asked my mom if I could go see a movie” is equivalent to “I asked my dentist if I could go see a movie.”

4. Why is the word miss not capitalized in your example “Please, miss, can you tell me the time?”

The capitalization system for addressing people by a term other than a name is confusing. The first letters of words for job and familial titles are capitalized, but titles of respect like sir and miss, as well as terms of endearment (such as dear), are styled entirely in lowercase letters.

5. In “Your majesty, his imperial highness summons the prince to the Command Council Tent,” should I change his to His?

Yes, but you shouldn’t uppercase only the first letter of his. Both “your majesty” and “his imperial highness” are used as titles; thus, all those words should be initially capitalized: “Your Majesty, His Imperial Highness summons the prince to the Command Council’s tent.”

Technically, because “his imperial highness” is in the third person, it should not be initial-capped unless it precedes the person’s name, but such courtesies for monarchs are often excepted from this rule.

(Also, if there is an official body called the Command Council, by all means capitalize its name. However, although you would capitalize room or chamber, for example, if there were a designated space for it to meet, because of a tent’s ephemeral nature, I don’t think tent merits the same treatment. Note that in the reference to the Command Council, I’ve made that body’s name possessive.)

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4 Responses to “5 Answers to Questions About Direct Address”

  • phanmo

    In number 2, shouldn’t “Hello, Ladies,” be “Hello Ladies,” without the first comma?

  • Matt Gaffney

    The rule cited in the third example of situation 3 is almost correct. It’s not “But if you precede mom with a pronoun,” but “. . . if you precede mom with a possessive adjective.” “My”is not a pronoun, it’s a possessive adjective.

  • Mark Nichol

    Phanmo:

    No, the comma is required. It’s usually missing in email messages and the like, but that’s an error. (That brings up the question “If most people do something wrong, doesn’t that make it right?”) In writing as in morality, the answer is no.

  • Robert

    Understanding the usage of the vocative case and the omission of “you” in the imperative mood will answer the first question. The vocative case is used in calling someone or in getting his attention.
    In the imperative sentence “Be proud, Wildcats” or “Wildcats, be proud”, the speaker is using the vocative case to get the attention of Wildcats, and at the same time to exhort them to be proud. In “Be proud Wildcats”, the vocative case is not used, and “you”, which is the covert subject of the imperative sentence, is not displayed. If “you” is mentioned, the sentence will read: “You, be proud Wildcats.”

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