Vocative: Definition and Examples

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A vocative is a word or phrase used to address a reader or listener directly, usually in the form of a personal name, title, or term of endearment (Bob, Doctor, and Snookums, respectively). The person's name or term of address is set off in the sentence with vocative commas. In speech, the vocative is indicated by intonation, meaning that an utterance is usually accented or emphasized. The grammar term for a sentence that uses a vocative is called being in the vocative case (or direct address), and the term itself comes from a Latin word meaning "call."

Key Takeaways: Vocative

  • When you address someone by name, you're using the vocative case.
  • When you write a sentence with direct address, you set off the name with vocative commas. 
  • When a vocative starts off with "you," it's likely negative—unless said in a sweet tone of voice. For example, "You dork."


How to Use the Vocative Case

When you use direct address, by definition you are speaking (or writing) to someone directly. Using a person's name gets his or her attention and can show respect (using a formal title) or emotion (term of endearment or derogatory name). A vocative doesn't have to be a proper noun. It can also be a noun phrase (as in the last example).

  • Mary, do you want to go to the concert with me?
  • Thank you so much, honey, for doing that for me.
  • I don't know what I'd do without you, Tim!
  • Well, doctor, what's your conclusion?
  • Professor, I have a question. 
  • Son, we need to talk.
  • Where are you, my little bookworm?

Notice that these sentences are in second person, as they have you in them, or you is understood because of the direct address. Animals and objects can be in the vocative case as long as the sentence is talking directly to them.

  • Darn it, keys, where the heck did I put you?
  • Fido, stop chewing on the couch.

Negatives

Of course, there's a negative side to terms of endearment. Author Leslie Dunkling describes that in English, they often start off with you as a part of the vocative phrase, in the structure of "you" + adjective + noun.

"Typical realizations of the formula would be: you bloody fool, you bloody swine, you cheeky sod, you dirty bastard, you lying bastard, you old cow, you stupid bitch. Often the adjective is omitted, 'you bastard,' 'you bitch,' 'you fool' being preferred."

She also notes, however, that with the right tone and context, these insults can also be terms of endearment or lighthearted.

Of course, a vocative phrase doesn't have to start with you to be negative or insulting; it just has to be in second person. 

  • Get out of my way, jerkface.

Setting Off With the Vocative Comma

In writing, you set off the name, term of endearment, or person's title with a comma (a vocative comma) at the start or end of a sentence, or with two commas if the name is in the middle of the sentence. In spoken language, there's typically a pause where the comma would be.

When to Avoid the Vocative Comma

Not every utterance of a person's name or title is direct address. If you're speaking or writing about someone in the third person (he, she, it), that's not vocative case or direct address, and commas aren't used to set off the name or epithet. Some of the sentences here are in the first person, but they still use third to refer to the person spoken about.

  • Mary went to the concert with me.
  • I thanked my honey for the help.
  • I don't know what I'd do without Tim.
  • I asked the doctor what her conclusion was. 
  • I had a question for the professor.
  • He needed to talk to his son.
  • Where is my little bookworm?

It's important to know the distinction because there are times when the lack of a vocative comma in a sentence can create confusion. 

  • Direct address, talking to Kelly: I don't know, Kelly.
  • Not direct address, talking about Kelly: I don't know Kelly. 

Careful Use of the Comma

Watch out for run-on sentences when using the vocative comma in the middle of a sentence. A name is not a conjunction that can join two independent clauses. 

  • Run-on: Thank you so much, Shelly, I don't know what I'd do without you.
  • Correction: Thank you so much, Shelly. I don't know what I'd do without you. 
  • Or: Thank you so much. Shelly, I don't know what I'd do without you. 

Source

Dunkling, Leslie. "A Dictionary of Epithets and Terms of Address." Routledge, 1990.