Commas Are Our Friends, and the Difference between With and By

The punctuation mark comma
The punctuation mark comma (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was talking on my facebook status the other day about how, at least in informal conversation, we seem to be dropping the commas that used to set off a person’s name when he or she is addressed. For instance, Bob, why don’t you use commas like you once did? On Facebook commas for this purpose seem to have completely disappeared.

Instead of “Happy Birthday, Bob,” people say, “Happy Birthday Bob!”  Without that comma the sentence ceases to be a sentence, and reads instead like some strange title given to a man named Bob, who is either having a happy birthday himself, or who perhaps delights in wishing a happy birthday to others. Does this make me a grammar nazi?

Please understand, I am aware of the fact that I make many typographical errors and grammatical omissions, but not every time I write a sentence I generally remember and use the rules correctly most of the time.  Even in casual chat and phone texting, while I don’t always bother with proper punctuation, or even capitalization, I do tend to keep reverting to it, and not simply out of habit, but often for the sake of clarity as well.

I don’t think it’s important to be a grammatical stickler outside of formal writing. I’m not convinced that abbreviations in text messages are “ruining the English language,” anymore than shorthand did when secretaries used it as an aid in dictation.

But the almost exclusive lack of this comma, friends, at least in casual writing, begs the question, is this rule no longer being taught?  Or has our language started to shift and leave it behind? I am not sure if this question has been addressed in Eats, Shoots and Leaves, but I think I’m going to dig further into this. Do you see commas used properly in memos at work, or formal letters, or is it just an text/internet thing?

I am not a prescriptive grammarian, and I understand that language evolves, but it can be funny when it degrades to the point of losing clarity. Coincidentally the same day that I was getting 56 comments on Facebook about the lowly comma, my boy Micah was posting on his blog about certain word choices that when taken to the extreme greatly reduce clarity, while increasing the humor quotient. I like that he illustrated this with a poetic experiment. I found it delightful. Please check it out, and then click follow and like on his blog if you enjoyed it.

13 Replies to “Commas Are Our Friends, and the Difference between With and By”

  1. My students have problems with most commas. The noun of direct address rule doesn’t come up often in the essays they write for me, but if it did, I’m sure it’d irritate me too.


    1. I think it was one of those days where I was looking at a friend’s birthday greetings. “Happy birthday Brian.” Over and over again. I am pretty sure that not one had the comma. Oh, and thank you for giving me the name of the rule. 🙂


  2. I sometimes am guilty of over-useage of a comma, but, never of under-usage. I even use complete, grammatically correct sentences in text messages. I am not a nit-picker about other people’s grammar, since mine isn’t perfect, but, I do cringe when people I know write badly.


    1. I hear you. Honestly, I like casual writing, conversational writing, and I don’t think I’m a snob about it. Heck, usually the meaning is not completely unclear without the comma, but the sound of it will strike me as comical, and that detracts from the original meaning, or distracts I suppose. I cannot quite break free of that.


    1. Interesting. That might be true for me as well, but in typing I tend to see on the screen what I meant to write rather than what is actually there. Sadly that means that withing a minute of a posting I am scrambling to edit my mistakes before anyone sees them. To those who get my posts by email, I sincerely apologize.


    2. I just wrote a short story and after looking it over I was reminded about our conversation.

      I print when writing by hand, yet my letters are cursive and my capitals are early 1900’s font(?). For example my A resembles an enlarged small case a but more fancy.

      Another thing I noticed is that I write much neater with pencil.

      What about yourself?


    3. Honestly, I do better with a pen than a pencil, but my penmenship has always been poor. Since I started typing on a Brother Typewriter some 25 years ago it has only gotten worse. Sometimes even I have a hard time deciphering what I write in one of my journals. 🙂


  3. I ceased trying to be the grammar nazi many years ago. It just caused bad feelings and wasn’t worth it. Now I’m kind of the anti-grammar nazi, and whenever I find a grammar nazi, I simply say, “There, their, they’re……..”


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