You may not be familiar with the term “vocative case,” but you, dear reader, have certainly seen it used. In fact, you just read an example of it:
…but you, dear reader, have certainly heard it used.
The vocative case can improve clarity, and this post will teach you what you need to know to use it in your writing.
What Is the Vocative Case?
The vocative case is used to address someone or something directly. It’s the verbal equivalent of a pointed finger or nudge – a way to claim the attention of whomever the sentence is directed at.
How Do You Form the Vocative Case?
There are two main elements to forming the vocative case:
Always use a noun or noun phrase to identify who or what is being addressed. This word or phrase is the vocative.
Consider these two sentences:
Stop looking at your phone!
You in the red jumper, stop looking at your phone!
This first sentence could apply to anyone looking at their phone, but adding the phrase “you in the red jumper” in the second sentence identifies who is being spoken to.
The vocative doesn’t always have to be placed at the start of the sentence. It can be used in the middle:
Now, Ian, put your phone away.
It can also be used to end a sentence:
Put your phone away now, you stubborn man!
If we imagine the vocative case as pointing at the “you” to whom the sentence is directly addressed, then we need a verbal equivalent of the nudge, or the pointing or jabbing finger. This is ably supplied by highlighting the “you” of the sentence with a comma or two.
The number of vocative commas required depends on the location of the vocative within the sentence:
● At the start of a sentence, a single comma is used immediately following the vocative:
Mom, can I borrow the car?
● A single comma precedes the vocative when it’s at the end of a sentence:
Would you like a cup of tea, Erin?
● Use two commas when the vocative is in the middle of the sentence – one before and one after:
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I’m sorry, Caitlin, but we’ve run out of coffee.
Some Common Errors and How to Avoid Them
● The vocative doesn’t need to be a single word or include the word “you.” Make sure that you separate the whole section that describes the person or thing being directly addressed with a comma (or two):
Just print the document you stubborn piece of, machinery!
Just print the document, you, stubborn piece of machinery!
Just print the document, you stubborn piece of machinery!
● Beware the weak bridge! A vocative cannot be used to link two independent clauses:
Put your pens down, class, the exam is over.
As in the example above, bridging two independent clauses with a vocative creates a comma splice and run-on sentence. There are several ways to resolve this, including adding a period, semicolon, or conjunction:
Put your pens down, class. The exam is over.
Put your pens down, class; the exam is over.
Put your pens down, class, because the exam is over.
● Leaving out the vocative comma can lead to unfortunate misunderstandings:
Do you know how to cook, Claudia?
This is a polite question to Claudia about her skills in the kitchen.
Do you know how to cook Claudia?
We don’t know to whom this is addressed, but Claudia would do well to run away!
Now that you know what the vocative case is and how to use it, you will see and hear (those commas become slight pauses in speech) it everywhere. Remember:
● The vocative identifies who is being addressed:
“To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” (Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest)
“Reader, I married him.” (Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre)
● The vocative case doesn’t override other rules of grammar, so make sure to separate clauses properly:
“Play it, Sam! Play ‘As Time Goes By.’” (Casablanca)
● Correct use of vocative commas can be the difference between a polite invitation to an elderly relative and a line more suitable for a horror movie:
Are you ready to eat, Granddad?
Are you ready to eat Granddad?
The vocative case may not, of course, be suitable for all forms of writing. Just as you wouldn’t (we hope) point your finger at your tutor while addressing them in class, using the verbal equivalent in academic writing also wouldn’t be appropriate.
If you are unsure about the vocative case or any other aspect of your writing, we have experts on hand 24/7 to proofread your work. Try our services for free by uploading a sample of your work today.