Vocative Case

Vocative Case

The vocative case is used to show direct address (i.e., to show when you are talking to somebody or something directly). In English, words in the vocative case are offset using commas.

Easy Examples of the Vocative Case

  • Hi,Sarah.
  • Jack, get off.
  • I know,Stephen.
  • (The comma before Stephen is required to show Stephen is being addressed. Without the comma, it means I know a person called Stephen.)
  • Dammit, sir, it is your duty to get married. You can't be always living for pleasure. (Oscar Wilde)

Real-Life Examples of the Vocative Case

The vocative case applies to nouns and noun phrases. It is used most frequently with proper nouns (the specific names of things, e.g., Simon, Rover).
  • Let her ride the donkey,Dick.
  • See you next Tuesday,Face. (a quote from "The A Team"…probably)
  • To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness. (Oscar Wilde)
Do not use a comma every time you use a name.
  • Your sister is called Teresa because it's an anagram of Easter, which your mother loves. Why do you ask,Alan?
  • (Teresa is not being addressed. Her name does not need to be offset with commas.)
The vocative case can also be used with common nouns (names for things, e.g., man, dog).
  • You're the man, man.
  • On your feet, dog.
  • Where have you been, you little adventurer?
  • (The word adventurer is a common noun. The term you little adventurer is a noun phrase, i.e., a group of words playing the role of a noun.)
Animals, even inanimate objects, can be in the vocative case.
  • Dexter, fetch the stick.
  • You have risen like one of Aunt Sally's Yorkshire puddings, you little beauty.
  • Why Should I Care about the Vocative Case?

    Using commas to show the vocative case will showcase your English skills, and, let's face it, that's the best reason to care about the vocative case. However, there are times when failing to use the vocative case could cause ambiguity.
    • I want to, mate.
    • I want to mate.
    • This is a tongue-in-cheek example to show the possibility of ambiguity. However, the following example is definitely not tongue in cheek.
    • "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinski." (President Bill Clinton)
    If you watch the video of this speech, you will notice that the President very deliberately leaves a gap before he says "Miss Lewinski". This, some claim, was to ensure a comma was inserted before her name, feasibly putting her name in the vocative case. This meant the identification of "that woman" was between the President and Miss Lewinski. In his next public statement, the President claimed his comment was "legally accurate". If it was "legally accurate" because of his vocative-case-comma pause, then you have to applaud his legal counsel.

    One more point. When the name being addressed is in the middle of a sentence (which is quite rare), it is offset with two commas
    • Yes, John, get your skates on.
    • It is true to say, dear, that we are skint.
    One last point, when a sentence ends with a word in the vocative case, be sure to end your sentence properly before starting a new one.
    • It's true, dear, we're skint. [wrong]
    • (This is called a run-on error. There is an entry on run-on errors.)
    • It's true, dear. We're skint.

    Key Point

    • If you're addressing someone directly, offset the name you use with a comma (or with two commas if it's mid-sentence).
      • Hi, John.
      • Play it again, Sam.
      • No, Lee, that's wrong.
      • I understand, your Majesty.
      • Jade, don't shout out the answers.
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