06 November, 2009


Interesting debate on Twitter about grammar today. I was told that whenever you address someone you're supposed to use a comma. Personally, I always use a stamp.

But seriously, apparently "Hello, Katie" is grammatically correct and "Hello Katie" is not. I'm of a generation where grammar wasn't considered important for children to learn. Never mind the antiquated rare rules, the very basics wasn't taught. (Or is that "weren't taught"?)

If someone mentioned pronouns and adverbs, I would pretend I knew what they were talking about while panicking inside.

The Twitter debate brought back those old fears of being found out as not a true writer. What writer doesn't know the basic tools of their trade? But I've changed. I now believe that maybe my politically correct anti-elitist educators were right: the only thing that matters is communicating clearly. And only the grammar rules that help us to do that matter.

"A comma goes before the name of the person you're addressing" may well be true but how does it enhance the communication? A lot of grammar rules were arbitrary or invented and then put in a book where they became gospel and sacred. The only Internet source I could find about that particular rule suggests that both "Hello, Katie" and "Hello Katie" are acceptable.

However, nowadays, using the comma in that way in fiction or screenplay dialogue indicates a breath or pause. Even if the reader understood it was grammatically correct, in the context of a book or script it would be wrong and lead to miscommunication. The comma means pause in dialogue just as a full stop means the end of a sentence^

Accepting this does not mean accepting the collapse of civilisation. Those of us who accept that the language and its rules evolve are not barbarians who will next want to bring in phonetic spelling and discard punctuation completely. That couldn't happen because it is contrary to my earlier point, "the only thing that matters is clear communication."



Dan said...

I would offer two things: (1) "Hello Kitty" is surely a brand name, so grammar doesn't really come into it. (2) Isn't the comma in "Hello, Kitty" less about a pause, and more about the intonation of how you say it? "Hello Kitty" is very straight. "Hello, Kitty" implies a bit of warmth, that you're talking to a person.

Helen Smith said...

Oh Robin...

Kevin said...


Robin Kelly said...

Dan, dialogue is for acting. A script is not literature, it's practical instructions for a production.

The first time I worked with actors, the director said to me - after a line was read out - "Shouldn't there be a pause there?" I said yes. He said put a comma in so the actor knows.

Sorry, Kevin.

Robin Kelly said...

I've changed 'Kitty' to 'Katie' as the poor gag led to miscommunication.

Griff said...

Hi Robin - I think you've picked quite a subtle example there in "Hello Katie" versus "Hello, Katie". And I would agree with Dan that in terms of dialogue, the two imply different intonation.

And of course it would be nonsense to suggest that lines of dialogue should be grammatically correct.

However, a great many scripts I read have significantly deeper grammatical problems than that to deal with. "I went to the, shop" for example. Those writers do need to learn the basic rules, however unappealing that seems.

Robin Kelly said...

Griff, good point. We might think we're communicating clearly but aren't.

We can make the effort to learn the basics or at least get someone who knows the basics to check our scripts.

Antonia said...

I learnt the basic grammatical rules, and once learnt I forgot the terms, because they were no longer needed: I could construct a sentence, etc, so who cares whether we can name a prepostition or not?

Also, both 'Hello Kitty' and 'Hello, Kitty' are probably fine, because we are not as pedantic as we used to be on grammar, and things do change and evolve with time.

Tom Salinsky said...

The rule, while not always helpful, is not arbitrary either. Its purpose is to distinguish between "Shall we walk around, mother?" and "Shall we walk around mother?".

The first, more typical, meaning is that the speaker and their mother should take a stroll together. The second, more eccentric meaning, is that the speaker and another party should parade in circles with the speaker's mother at the centre.

While this example is absurd, it makes the point that an ambiguity can easily be created if this rule is not adhered to. However, if the writer is confident that no such ambiguity is created, then there is no need to clutter the text with a lot of unnecessary commas.



The Kid In The Front Row said...

haha, "I was told that whenever you address someone you're supposed to use a comma. Personally, I always use a stamp," made me chuckle.

from, the, kid, in, the, front, row,,

Robin Kelly said...

Tom, thanks for the explanation. That ambiguity in descriptions/action is the kind of thing I really hate checking for but it needs to be done.

Kid, thanks.