“I need space (,) people!”

After a while, you’ve seen that meme so many times about how a comma can save your granny from cannibals, you just ignore it, right? Who cares? Granny is tough and can fight off dozens of cannibals with her Cast-Iron Skillet of Doom (DOOM, I tell you!). She doesn’t need some stupid punctuation mark to help her…

Well, I’m not going to tell you about how a comma can save your granny from cannibals.

I am going to show you a few more examples how a comma really changes the meaning of a sentence that contains a direct address.

“I need space people!”

“I need space, people!”

With the comma there, you don’t have to guess whether the speaker wants more room or more astronauts; you know.

My all-time favorite should-have-used-that-comma for this is one I read in a near-future SF novel a few years ago. The dialogue should have been written as, “Let’s go, mate.” Think about that for a moment, and you’ll see why leaving the comma out was a bad choice.

Would you believe it only now occurred to me that I may need to explain what direct address is? (They used to teach this stuff in school, but the internet does leave one with the impression that such is no longer the case…) Direct address is — unsurprisingly — when someone is addressed directly, either by name or by some other I-mean-you indicator. Dude can be a direct address: “Dude, are you hiding the closet with a knife?”

Compare “I don’t know Marty” and “I don’t know, Marty.” In the first, you’re talking about Marty; in the second, you’re talking to Marty. Your readers should never have to guess which you mean, and you can’t rely exclusively on context to make it clear.

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About Thomas Weaver

I’m a writer and editor who got into professional editing almost by accident years ago when a friend from university needed someone to copyedit his screenplay about giant stompy robots (mecha). Having discovered that I greatly enjoy this kind of work, I’ve been putting my uncanny knack for grammar and punctuation, along with an eclectic mental collection of facts, to good use ever since as a Wielder of the Red Pen of Doom. I'm physically disabled, and for the past several years, I’ve lived with my smugly good-looking twin Paul, who writes military science fiction and refuses to talk about his military service because he can’t. Sometimes Paul and I collaborate on stories, and sometimes I just edit whatever he writes. It's worked out rather well so far. My list of non-writing-related jobs from the past includes librarian, art model, high school teacher, science lab gofer… Although I have no spouse or offspring to tell you about, I do have six cats. (The preferred term is "Insane Cat Gentleman.") I currently spend my time blogging, reading, editing, and fending off cats who like my desk better than my twin’s.
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6 Responses to “I need space (,) people!”

  1. Brilliant, simply brilliant!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for this. The mate (mating?) example put a little chuckle in my day. Now I need to go eat, poop and sleep. Notice how the placement of the comma saved me from a dreadful meal.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh my gosh! Thank you. Thank you. Aaaand… thank you! I’m one of those who swears by commas (in fact, I used them too much when I was a young, uneducated writer[arguably I may still be >.>]), but it always bothers me when people improperly use commas. It really does change an entire sentence and how people don’t understand that, is beyond me. -.- *continues to mentally correct people*

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Quintessential Editor says:

    Outstanding breakdown! You have a knack for explaining punctuation and grammar.

    I’m at a point where I think I know, but still need to open the books and confirm information. Maybe someday it’ll be second nature. Either that or blistered fingers from constantly flipping through pages in style guides. Other than style guides, do you have any recommendations for books covering punctuation?

    Liked by 1 person

    • There’s Lynn Truss’ book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves. (The cover says, “The zero tolerance approach to punctuation.” I think, “Shouldn’t there be a hyphen in “zero-tolerance,” since it’s being used as a compound adjective?” *shrug*) I don’t agree with everything she says. She’s from the UK, and… Well, they do some things differently there. At least she recognizes the differences between UK English and US English.

      Like

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