The Missing Comma in “Yes sir” Bugs Me

Dear Wondering…

Sir unaccompanied by a comma can bug me, too—but there’s a reason we sometimes see that. Your examples are direct addresses, which the “rules” say are to be set off by commas: “I told you not to do that, Anne.” But the rule gets fuzzy when it comes to the word sir. It turns out yes sir can, in fact, go without a comma when it’s used almost as a single word, as in “Yes sir! I will.” This is covered in entry 5.47 of The Chicago Manual of Style (14th ed.), which most fiction publishers use. In a nod to the fuzziness of usage and punctuation, each publisher creates its own “house style guide” to codify its preferences. (Yes, the guides can be word-specific.) Copy editor sensibility then factors in. She may decide on “Yes sir,” she said to follow house style (she’ll have a guide for each house she works with), or she may sense “single word” usage, or she may want a clean look for the text itself. After all, “Yes, sir,” she said has a lot of punctuation for a sentence with so few words. Does punctuation fussiness serve that book? Good copy editors know the rules but also consider the flavor of each project.

Happy writing!
The Editor


  1. “To who” drives me bananas! I even Hear there’s a push to make that correct instead if to whom. Ack!! Even newscasters do it …regularly!

    • When we stand back and look at the evolution of the English language, we can see the fluidity of “rules,” but even so we can have our pet peeves and preferences regarding items transitioning within our own lifetime.

  2. We were just discussing this in our critique group. “Hi John” versus “Hi, John.” Interesting that “Yes sir” may have an exception–sharing this with my group!

  3. I have to admit that punctuation is another scary subject for me. Due to a serious illness, I left school earlier than I should have and although I have the creativity and vocabulary to write, my punctuation isn’t up to the standard it should be.

    It does worry me that I may not to the task of using punctuation , so I may have to dedicate myself to learning the rules and appropriate use of punctuation.

  4. I’m wondering what CMOS reference talks about “yes sir” without the comma. I’ve searched everywhere, and 5.47 has nothing to do with that. Please share the reference. Thanks!

  5. Somewhere in the back of my 83-year-old brain it says that a word should be capitalized when it takes the place of a proper noun. So . . .I want yes sir to be written “Yes, Sir.” What say you?’

  6. Aileen, I know it feels right, but I’ve never heard anyone say “Yes, Sir.” i.e. “Yes… (pause) Sir.” Sometimes we have a duty to do something truly evil for the sake of clarity and use an ex… use an excl… an “exclaimation mark.”

    That’s why I love free indirect style. Would get in a foxhole with the weirdo who keeps saying “Yes, Sir.” or a comrade in arms

    Zsenyuk, goddamnit get your ass outta there.
    Sir, they’ve got us zero’d!

    The small figure fell motionless in a pool of deep crimson.
    You’re okay kid-where the hell is my medic!
    …Yes, Sir.
    NO, No-not you. Not you. Anyone else? cslakin? Ford?

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