There it goes, disappearing into extinction, that fine old mark of punctuation, the comma of direct address. Every time I read an email that starts “Hi William,” I wince. Deep within me lurks a reactionary grammarian who insists on a comma separating the name of the person from what is being said to them. At first I tried to convince myself that in the salutation of an email the missing comma isn’t important. After all, the meaning is clear.
But this crotchety old part of me replied, If it’s written false there, the principle will be lost, the error will creep into the body of the text, a useful distinction of meaning will become blurred, and eventually our language will devolve into grunts and grimaces.
I told him he was being alarmist. This new usage doesn’t have to spread from the salutation into the text. But then I got an email from my publisher, who wrote, “Thanks for the comment William.” The tocsins of doom sounded in me. If this man whose profession is literacy has been infected, our culture has indeed sunk into depravity. I’m now convinced that this trend, if left unchecked, will end in barbarism. Strong measures are needed now to stop this decline. To that end, I’ve founded a new militant group, Crusty Old Pedants. COPs are proud grammatical nitpickers determined to resist the linguistic laxity now proliferating at all levels of society.
Our first goal is to save the comma of direct address from extinction, starting with email salutations. We write “Hi, Name -” (with a dash instead of a second comma) or just plain “Name,” or we revert to that now-antique adjective of respect and affection and write “Dear Name,”.
Once the comma of direct address is off the endangered list, we intend to restore the semicolon to its position of dignity and utility. Then we’re going to reinstate the diagramming of sentences into the school curriculum. Without that graphic aid, many children never really learn the structural components of a sentence.
This may seem an idealistic dream, but as Margaret Mead wrote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
If you’d like to become a COP and join our crusade, write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Just make sure you don’t start your email with “Hi William.”
William T. Hathaway’s first novel, A World of Hurt, won a Rinehart Foundation Award, and his new one, Wellsprings, concerns the environmental crisis. A selection of his writing is available at www.peacewriter.org.