In response to one of my older blog posts, “Punctuation Point: The Direct Address Comma,”* a reader asked me to expand on the direct address comma. Could the comma alter meaning? He offered these sentences: Look, Daddy! and Look Daddy!
The first, he thought, seemed to introduce a pause that gave a meaning of “Hey, look, it’s Daddy!” rather than the intended “Hey, Daddy, look at this!”
I’d agree that in speech, we’re likely to hear a slight pause before and after the noun we’re using to address someone. It’s a good way to get the attention of the person we’re talking to. It’s also a good way to draw attention to an interjection, which is like an exclamation within the sentence.
For both nouns of direct address and interjections, we use commas to indicate that the noun isn’t grammatically part of the sentence. It’s a way of saying, “Hey, pay attention!”
Start with the Verb
Why doesn’t Look Daddy! work? When I need to quickly take a sentence apart to see how it works, I play what I call “Find the Verb.” Verbs are the heart of the sentence—and often easily recognizable—so I start there.
Let’s look at both sentences. What’s the action? Look. Now we build off the action with a series of questions. First, who or what look? There’s nothing before the verb in either sentence, which is where we normally find the subject. We can conclude, then, that this is a command and the subject is you understood.
Our next question is: look what? While look can be both transitive and intransitive, the meaning we want here is one of the intransitive meanings: “to employ one’s sight, especially in a given direction or on a given object.” What follows, then, must be something that can grammatically follow an intransitive verb. We have some choices, such as an adverb (Look closely) or a prepositional phrase (Look into my eyes).
Let’s jump to the second sentence. What follows is a noun (Daddy). Intransitive verbs don’t take an object, so Daddy doesn’t work here. The second sentence has no grammatical meaning.
Back in the first sentence, we have a comma between look and Daddy. That comma tells us that Daddy is separate from the verb; it’s not connected. We’re interjecting something here: an announcement to get Daddy to pay attention. The main sentence is a command and just one word: Look.
When a Noun Isn’t the Subject
A common mistake is to identify a direct address noun at the beginning of the sentence as the subject. Let’s deconstruct Hey, Daddy, look at this! by playing our verb game to see how that works.
What’s the verb? Look. Who looks? We’re tempted to think it’s Daddy, but then we’d need the third-person form of look: Daddy looks. That’s not what we have. Hey isn’t a noun, so we know that’s not the subject. As before, we can reasonably conclude that this is a command and the subject is you understood.
If Daddy isn’t the subject, what is it? The commas tell us that Daddy is outside the sentence’s grammar, making it a direct address noun.
To complete our deconstruction, let’s ask: look what? Look at this. The prepositional phrase gives us specifics about where Daddy should look.
By playing “Find the Verb,” you can quickly categorize a sentence’s words and identify nouns of direct address.