Direct Address in Grammar and Rhetoric

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

"As for you, my galvanized friend, you want a heart." This sentence from The Wizard of Oz (1939) illustrates direct address. (Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

In English grammar and rhetoric, direct address is a construction in which a speaker or writer communicates a message directly to another individual or group of individuals. The person who is addressed may be identified by namenickname, the pronoun you, or an expression that's either friendly or unfriendly. 

Conventionally, the name of the individual who's addressed is set off by a comma or a pair of commas.

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Examples and Observations

  • "Hey SpongeBob, can I borrow the cheese bucket?"
    (Patrick in SpongeBob SquarePants)
  • "You've been given a gift, Peter. With great power, comes great responsibility."
    (Cliff Robertson as Ben Parker in Spider-Man 2, 2004)​
  • "Smokey, my friend, you are entering a world of pain."
    (John Goodman as Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski, 1998
  • "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn!"
    (Rhett Butler's final words to Scarlett O'Hara in Margaret Mitchell's novel, Gone With the Wind, 1936
  • Richard Vernon: My office is right across that hall. Any monkey business is ill-advised. Any questions?
    John Bender: Yeah, I have a question. Does Barry Manilow know that you raid his wardrobe?
    Richard Vernon: You'll get the answer to that question, Mr. Bender, next Saturday.
    (Paul Gleason and Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club, 1985
  • Ilsa: Play it, Sam. Play "As Time Goes By."
    Sam: Oh, I can't remember it, Miss Elsa. I'm a little rusty on it.
    (Ingrid Bergman and Dooley Wilson in Casablanca, 1942
  • "Ilsa, I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you'll understand that. Now, now . . .. Here's looking at you, kid."
    (Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, 1942
  • "And you, my father, there on the sad height,
    Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
    Do not go gentle into that good night.
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light."
    (Dylan Thomas, "Do not go gentle into that good night")
  • "You idiot, what are you doing working in this poorhouse crammed with rotten guavas full of maggots, and you rotting just like them?"
    (Reinaldo Arenas, The Palace of the White Skunks, trans. by Andrew Hurley. Viking, 1991)
  • "'Hey, you old bastard,' Chick said. 'How you doin'?' Chick came down the final two steps, pushed Tommy aside, grabbed Francis's hand, threw an arm around his shoulder, slapped his back. 'You old bastard,' Chick said. “Where you been?'"
    (William Kennedy, Very Old Bones. Viking, 1992)
  • Direct Address and the Pronoun "You"
    "It is clear that a term of address is always closely linked with the pronoun 'you,' which in itself has vocative qualities. One could say, in fact, that whenever pronominal 'you' is used in direct address, vocative 'you' is implicitly present. The two kinds of 'you' are inextricably bound together, though in an utterance like 'You! What do you think you're doing!' the first 'you' is clearly vocative, where the others are pronominal.

    "Pronominal and vocative 'you' differ in their attitudinal marking. The former is neutral, the latter unfriendly. Pronominal 'you' also conforms to normal rules of syntax; vocative 'you' does not need to do so. Vocative 'you,' finally, allows substitution. In 'You! What do you think you're doing!' vocative 'you' could be replaced by 'darling,' 'John,' 'you stupid fool,' and innumerable other terms of address, all of which could be described as vocative-'you' variants. That point is significant, because the corollary of my statement that vocative 'you' is always implicitly present when pronominal 'you' is used in direct address, is that pronominal 'you' is always implicitly present when vocative 'you' is used."
    (Leslie Dunkling, A Dictionary of Epithets and Terms of Address. Routledge, 1990)
  • The Rhetorical Use of "My Friends" in Direct Address
    - "'My friends,' [Senator] John McCain recently informed a crowd, 'we spent $3 million of your money to study the DNA of bears in Montana.' . . .

    "McCain . . . referred to 'my friends' another 11 times. . . .

    "Is this a doctrine of pre-emptive friendship--immediately declaring crowds won over with an oratorical 'mission accomplished'? Perhaps, but McCain's friending is a strategy that hearkens back to classical rhetoric. Horace's call to 'amici' performed a similar function in ancient Rome, and Tennyson's 1833 poem 'Ulysses' drew upon that tradition for the immortal lines: 'Come, my friends/ 'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.' . . .

    "But as a crowd bludgeon in modern political speechmaking, 'my friends' can be laid at the feet of one man: William Jennings Bryan. His famed 1896 'Cross of Gold' speech at the Democratic National Convention invoked the phrase a mind-crushing 10 times."
    (Paul Collins, "MF'er." Salon.com, September 1, 2008)

    - "Now, my friends, let me come to the great paramount issue."
    (William Jennings Bryan, "Cross of Gold" speech, July 9, 1896)

    - "Words matter, my friends."
    (Hillary Clinton, speech in Des Moines, Iowa, on August 10, 2016)

    - "[W]e come to the friendship of association, which is certainly the most common meaning of the word 'friend.' Some years ago the comedian Red Skelton impersonated a politician giving a campaign speech. "My friends" he wheezed, "and you are my friends," he quickly sputtered, "and don't tell me you're not my friends, because nobody's going to tell me who my friends are.' Obviously the friends he was talking about were friends of association, acquaintances where there is little or no affection, or where people interact on some friendly basis."
    (John M. Reisman, Anatomy of Friendship. Irvington, 1979)
  • Visual Forms of Direct Address
    "Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen [in Reading Images, 1996] note that images in which the gaze is directed at the viewer of the image create 'a visual form of direct address. It acknowledges the viewers explicitly, addressing them with a visual "you."' Kress and van Leeuwen call these images 'demand' images because they demand 'that the viewer enter into some kind of imaginary relation with him or her.' A classic example of the demand image is the Uncle Sam recruiting poster, 'I Want YOU.'" 
    (Cara A. Finnegan, "Studying Visual Modes of Public Address." The Handbook of Rhetoric and Public Address, ed. by Shawn J. Parry-Giles and J. Michael Hogan. Wiley-Blackwell, 2010)
  • Direct Address in the Media
    "[In many] contexts, for example television comedy or commercials, news and current affairs programmes, direct address is the accepted convention, although not everyone has the right to address the viewer directly. Anchorpersons and on-camera reporters may look at the camera but interviewers may not. In chat shows, hosts may use direct address but guests may not. In other words, direct address is a privilege which the media profession has by and large reserved for itself."
    (Theo van Leeuwen, "Moving English: ​The Visual Language of Film." Redesigning English: New Texts, New Identities, ed. by Sharon Goodman and David Graddol. Routledge, 1996) 
  • Ellen Gilchrist's Address to Her Writing Students
    Dear Students,

    If you are not writing well and happily, or if you feel your writing is forced, stop for a while and read or go out into the world and watch building projects or street-repair crews or get a job in a mall for Christmas or get into the car and drive to a city and look at art. Learn, learn, learn, be curious, and, if possible, uncritical. Everywhere men and women are doing wonderful things, marvelous things, interesting things. Write paragraphs about what you see and don't try to turn them into anything but praise and understanding. . . .

    Learn, learn, learn, read, read, read. I will be thinking about you and wishing you well every day.

    Ellen
    (Ellen Gilchrist, The Writing Life. University Press of Mississippi, 2005
  • The Lighter Side of Direct Address
    Cassio: Dost thou hear, mine honest friend?
    Clown: No, I hear not your honest friend. I hear you.
    (William Shakespeare, Othello, Act Three, scene 1)

    "Son, you got a panty on your head."
    (Truck driver addressing H.I. McDunnough in Raising Arizona, 1987)
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Nordquist, Richard. "Direct Address in Grammar and Rhetoric." ThoughtCo, Mar. 25, 2017, thoughtco.com/direct-address-grammar-and-rhetoric-1690457. Nordquist, Richard. (2017, March 25). Direct Address in Grammar and Rhetoric. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/direct-address-grammar-and-rhetoric-1690457 Nordquist, Richard. "Direct Address in Grammar and Rhetoric." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/direct-address-grammar-and-rhetoric-1690457 (accessed January 17, 2018).