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How to Properly Use Nouns of Direct Address

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Jan 27, 2020 • 2 min read

Nouns of direct address are a lesser-known feature of English grammar that must be set off by commas.



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What Is Direct Address in Writing?

Direct address refers to any construct in which a speaker is talking directly to an individual or group. The address can be a pronoun (“Hey, you!”), a person’s name, a proper noun, a salutation, or a collective noun. Direct address is most famously used in speechwriting, allowing the speaker to connect directly with their audience.

What Are Nouns of Direct Address?

Nouns of direct address are the nouns used to indicate that a speaker is directly addressing a person or group. Nouns of direct address are grammatically separate from the rest of the sentence, functioning like interjections since they aren’t involved with the action of the sentence. Nouns of direct address are also known as vocative case nouns.

How to Use Commas With Nouns of Direct Address

Typically, commas are used to set off nouns of direct address. If the direct address is at the beginning of the sentence, use a comma after the direct address. If the direct address comes at the end of the sentence, use a comma right before the direct address. If the direct address is in the middle of the sentence, us a pair of commas surrounding the direct address. The commas show that the direct address is not the subject or object of the sentence, but an address.

A classic example of the importance of commas with nouns of direct address is found in these two example sentences:

  • Let’s eat Grandpa!
  • Let’s eat, Grandpa!

See the difference? In the first sentence with the missing comma, Grandpa becomes the direct object of the action verb eat.

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2 Examples of Direct Address

  1. “Ulysses” (1833) by Alfred, Lord Tennyson: The poem includes the lines “Come, my friends,/ 'Tis not too late to seek a newer world” in the last stanza. In this example, “my friends” is the noun of direct address. To convince the mariners to travel with him, the poem undergoes a shift: At first, the speaker (Ulysses) is talking to himself; the direct address lets us know that he is now speaking directly to the mariners.
  2. William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (1599): In the play, Mark Antony addresses a crowd with the now well-known phrase, “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.” We tend to think of nouns of direct address as consisting of just one word, but here “Friends, Romans, countrymen,” are all direct addresses set off by commas. Again, a character in power is asking a group for something, and he uses direct address to connect with them.

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