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comma in direct address

re: The Missing Comma in “Yes sir” Bugs Me

in Formatting/Punctuation/Grammar by

Dear Editor…

I have noticed in many books that are supposed to be “edited professionally” that writers aren’t putting commas in these instances: “Yes sir,” she said. And “I told you not to do that Anne,” John said. Shouldn’t there be a comma before “sir” and “Anne”? Why are so many people ignoring this basic 101 punctuation rule? Or am I wrong? I see it most from indie or smaller publishers. The funny thing is, the rest of those manuscripts are fine – no typos, other mistakes – except for that one rule, as if it’s been misused so much that some freelance editors have started to believe that’s the correct way.

Sincerely,
Wondering

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

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