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The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

What Is the Vocative Case in English?

Would you please hand me that flower vase, my dear?

Joaquin, how much rice does the recipe call for?

You know, my friend, I’m not sure if we’re going to make it on time.

Most of us are familiar with expressions like these. We might also communicate in similar ways when writing salutations such as Dear Mrs. Walker.

Vocative Case: Definition and Examples

The use of nouns and noun phrases right above has its own grammatical category known as the vocative case. The vocative case identifies someone or something being addressed. Because it involves a form of direct address, the vocative case stands in for the pronoun you to specify who you is in an exchange:

Joaquin, how much rice does the recipe call for?
(You), how much rice does the recipe call for?

You’ll most commonly see the vocative case being used with proper nouns, especially names:

Hi, Richard.

Your Majesty, have you seen the duchess’s croquet mallet?

Thank goodness you’re here to end the week, Friday!

I’m afraid, Mr. Dracula, that I failed to take your cape to the dry cleaner.

You can also use the vocative case for common nouns, animals, and inanimate objects:

Kind person, do you have a moment to assist me?

Here, kitty-kitty!

Drain, I command you to unclog!

Vocative Case: The Vocative Comma

The presence of the vocative case informs us that certain nouns or noun phrases are being directly addressed as opposed to serving as other sentence components.

The person or thing being addressed is identified by the vocative comma (or by a slight pause when speaking). Without the vocative comma or commas, we would often have ambiguity concerning the writer’s intent. Compare the following sentences:

I don’t know John, but he sounds like he’s a good person.
I don’t know, John, but he sounds like he’s a good person.

 That appears to be sugar honey.
That appears to be sugar, honey.

In the first pair, the first sentence treats John as a direct object: I don’t know him (John). In the second sentence, we are expressing our observation to John.

In the second sentence pair, for all we know, sugar honey could be a new type of sweetener. In the second sentence, because of the vocative case, honey is better understood to be a term of endearment.

Let’s look at how more sentences can be interpreted if the vocative case is not clear:

I say we eat Dad.

Have you given up Grandma?

Guilty, you are clearly not my friends.

If the same sentences include proper vocative commas, we have:

I say we eat, Dad.

Have you given up, Grandma?

Guilty, you are clearly not, my friends. (or Guilty you are clearly not, my friends.)

Vocative Case: Punctuation with Placement

As you’ve seen in the examples thus far, the vocative case can be used in the beginning, middle, or end of a sentence.

When using the vocative case, you want to ensure that other punctuation in the sentence is correct. For example, if a sentence ends in the vocative case before another sentence begins, the first sentence should conclude in a period. If the first sentence introduces a following statement, it should end in a colon:

Correct: It’s true, Shanice. You did win the scholarship.
Correct: It’s true, Shanice: You did win the scholarship.
Incorrect: It’s true, Shanice, you did win the scholarship.

The last sentence is a fused (run-on) sentence.

If the vocative case begins a sentence, we insert a vocative comma after the vocative reference:

Adam, please hand me those figs.

If the vocative case appears in the middle of a sentence, we place a vocative comma before and after the reference:

I am committed to completing the project, Mrs. Christiansen, and I will update you on my progress.

Related Topics

Should You Use a Comma After Hello?
Commas in Titles
Hitting the Right Notes with Salutations and Closings

Pop Quiz

Test your knowledge of the vocative case by punctuating its use correctly in the following sentences.

1. We’ve already met Jolene and it was at your father’s birthday party.

2. Mrs. O’Cleary we would like you to have this token of our appreciation.

3. Stop doing that you little rascal!

4. This is a defining day my fellow board members as we decide whether to proceed with the merger.

5. My dear Charlton would you please bring me a cup of tea?

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. We’ve already met, Jolene, and it was at your father’s birthday party.

2. Mrs. O’Cleary, we would like you to have this token of our appreciation.

3. Stop doing that, you little rascal!

4. This is a defining day, my fellow board members, as we decide whether to proceed with the merger.

5. My dear Charlton, would you please bring me a cup of tea?

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One response to “What Is the Vocative Case in English?”

  1. Anne Palmer says:

    Thanks to the GrammarBook folks, as always, for a discussion that helps people use English more accurately to convey their ideas. What a treasure of help for teachers and writers alike!
    When I was young, ages ago, my teachers called nouns in the vocative “nouns of direct address.” In an environment where students have trouble remembering nominative and objective, the term “noun of direct address” has helped them remember that the vocative does exactly what you say: It directly addresses the reader or audience.
    Thank you again!

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