Email Greetings


Hi June,

That’s a greeting I see almost every day in my in-box. The punctuation catches my eye every time.
According to a careful reading of the Chicago Manual of Style, that’s wrong. Yet pretty much every email ever sent, including ones sent to me by editors, does it this way.

Chicago says that a “direct address” should be set off by commas. A direct address occurs when you call someone by a name or other term used like a name.

Goodbye, Norma Jean
Hey, dude
Listen, punk
Excuse me, ma’am
I swear it, officer
Chief, you gotta believe me
Oh, Steve

Dude, punk, chief, officer, Steve -- those are all direct addresses because they’re all things people are being called directly.

When we say they’re supposed to be “set off” with commas, that means that when one appears in the middle of a sentence it should have a comma on either side. Goodbye, Norma Jean, and good luck. Hey, dude, that’s awesome. If they're at the end or beginning of a sentence, of course, the period at the end of the sentence precludes the need for a second comma. Goodbye, Norma Jean. Dude, that’s awesome.

But almost every time I see a direct address in my e-mail in-box, it has no comma before the name. Hi June,

It does, however, have a comma after the name. But that doesn’t make sense, either, because it’s not in the middle of a sentence.

I think I know why this is so common. A lot of correspondence starts with greetings like: Dear John,

Unlike Hi, June, that is fine. “Dear” isn’t the same as “hi.” Dear is a modifier, and you don’t use a comma to separate modifiers from the things they modify “lazy, cat.” They work as a unit: “lazy cat.”

A comma after Dear John makes more sense than a comma after Hi, June. Dear John, begins a thought, while Hi, June. is a complete thought. (By the way, when addressing a letter, it’s okay to use a colon, too. Dear John: )

I think people have the Dear John, greeting seared into their minds, so Hi John, looks right to them, even though it would be better as Hi, John.


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