Sunday, October 28, 2007

You Know Rob

You know Rob. He's that guy with the funny glasses and the bald patch that makes him look like he's been tonsured and...

No, wait a minute. Actually, I was talking to Rob. I was saying: "You know, Rob, the way people are losing commas from around direct address is really beginning to bother me."

Do you (the reader, not Rob) know what I'm talking about? I'd learned that when someone was addressed directly, you offset the name or title with commas. Like so:

"I can't, Rob."

Without that comma

"I can't Rob."

it looks to me as though someone is asserting that they are incapable of engaging in a specific act of larceny, as in the fine distinction drawn by the lyric to She Came in Through the Bathroom Window: "She could steal, but she could not rob."

Even when it's perfectly clear it's a name--and the initial capital letter ought to be a big clue to me--it makes me crazy, and a perverse part of my mind (that would be that largest part) starts talking back to the character. Let me read:

"I can't Peggy!"

and I'm immediately involved in an argument:

"Of course you can Peggy. Anyone can learn to Peggy...Look here, you just balance on one foot, you lift your opposite arm, spin your hand in the air--Yes! You're Peggying!"

And there are plenty of cases where the sense can be changed:

"I can't bear, children, when you scream like that."

versus

"I can't bear children when you scream like that."

Well, who could? Childbirth is difficult enough under the best of circumstances. (With a nod and wink to Dickens.)

More often, the sense is left unchanged, but the sentence just looks all wrong to my eye:

"I believe you sir ought to go sit over there."

(A much-dreaded 'that' after 'believe' would help the above sentence immensely as well.)

I'm encountering more and more of these missing commas, often in published works, as if the ghost of Gertrude Stein has been sneaking in at night and hosing them away.

But, then I wonder if it isn't our own fault. Although I used to begin a certain class of informal e-mails with the salutation:

Hi, Rob--

more recently I have conformed to current practice and written

Hi Rob--

which I believe is leading many people to believe that the comma in direct address is somehow superfluous. (nb. In either case, many of my e-mail correspondents have been puzzled that I call them 'Rob', so I've taken to addressing them by their actual names.)

Is the comma offsetting the name in direct address really considered optional, or are copyeditors everywhere simply slacking off on the job? I hope it isn't optional, and I hope folks start putting them back in, as I find it distracting at best, and downright confusing at worst. Those commas can make a difference. In fact, I'm going to start stuffing them back into my e-mail salutations.

Call me, Ishmael.

We'll do lunch.

8 comments:

Janet said...

Judging by the multiplicity of other errors creeping in, I'd say it's copy-editors slacking off.

And it is so refreshing to come across someone as uptight as me. Er, I.

David Isaak said...

I don't think of it as uptight. I think of it as readerly.

Janet said...

I think of it as a love of craft and excellence, but judging by the reactions of some, they don't see it that way. ;o)

David Isaak said...

It's true, some people don't see it that way. And I respect their opinions. Their wrongheaded shortsighted slipshod opinions.

Neil said...

Hi, David,

Hurrah for you.

I have been confused about the correct practice for 'hi' as my spellchecker opposes my decision to include the comma, but I'm sticking to my guns.

David Thayer said...

I never knew the old rules and now they got new rules. Or, now they have new rules, but I forgot the old ones.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Neil--

There! I did it. Hi, hi, hi, Neil!
Bwah-ha-ha-ha! Blows against the empire! They'll haul us off to prison together!

Hi, David--

Rules? There's no rules in a knife fight--Ooof!!!

Jake Jesson said...

Hi David--

Hi, David?

Believe it or not, I've been debating which to use in formal/semi-formal emails these days. It doesn't help that professionals don't seem to care that much about such things, in general. Unless they use form letters.