How to punctuate 'Hi, John' as an email greeting

Hi John,

How many emails and other correspondence are punctuated exactly that way, with no comma after “hi” but a comma after “John”? Most, it seems. This form is so common that it’s become acceptable. Use it if you like.

But if you want to get really technical, there’s a better way.

According to the Chicago Manual of Style, 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 

Norma Jean, dude, punk, ma’am, officer and Chief – 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 a direct address is at the end of a sentence, of course, the period at the end of the sentence precludes the need for a second comma.

Goodbye, Norma Jean.

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

Hi John,

Usually, however, there is a comma after the name. But that doesn’t quite make sense, either, because it’s not in the middle of a sentence.

I think I know why people punctuate email greetings this way. It has to do with the common “Dear John,” greeting.

“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 — it’s just part of a sentence. "Hi, John." is a complete thought and a complete sentence.

So when I start an email with “hi” or “hey” or “hello” followed by a name, I set the name off with a comma and end the line with a period or colon.

Hey, John.

But if you want to keep using

Hey John,

no one is likely to have a problem with it.


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