The newest depth of depravity

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 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

3 Responses to The newest depth of depravity

  1. All too true, Mr. Hathaway. In addition to the betrayal of the comma and semicolon, I’d like to deplore the approaching extinction of cursive writing and the monstrous valley girl accent. Awful, awful!

  2. I also detest the decline of the preposition in America English with sentences such as “I wrote you yesterday”. This, in my pedantic opinion, is just plain wrong. It should be “I wrote [a letter] TO you yesterday” The preposition, as humble as it is, nonetheless has a vital role to play in the elucidation of meaning and abandoning it here may tempt people to abandon it elsewhere.

  3. SMS language is rewriting common usuage of English but an even bigger factor is the growth of English use in Asia. Grammar is out and meaning is in. Trying to correct decades long misuses in places like India, the Philippines and many other places will I think prove impossible. The Asians are coming, Mr. Hathaway, and you are going. Sorry and all that. It is really only a few hundred years that common rules have codified our language and it has always changed. Old guys standing against the tide feel heroic and important right up to the tide washing over them.