comma in direct address

The Missing Comma in “Yes sir” Bugs Me

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.


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