Comma Confusion: Greetings, Introductions & Birthdays

Happy 50th Anniversary, TESOL!

Language keeps changing and evolving, especially nowadays with so much of our communication being carried out by text messaging and social media. One of the biggest changes I’ve noticed as an editor is comma usage becoming less frequent, especially in social media and other forms of online communication.

So what do we teach our students about comma use nowadays, knowing they’ll see English online most of the time? For guidance, let’s take a look behind the scenes at ESL Library’s style choices for greetings, introductions, and birthdays.

Greetings

Traditionally, a comma comes after a greeting word in English.

  • Hi, John.

But what happens at the beginning of an email, newsletter, text, letter, etc. when the name should be followed by a comma?

  • Hi, John,

Most people would agree that this double comma looks strange. Also, dropping the comma after the greeting term is very common in informal and web writing nowadays. For our newsletters, we use one of two ways:

  • Hi John,
  • Hi, John!

I would suggest teaching students to drop a comma after the greeting word if a comma follows the name, but keep it otherwise (as above). My feeling is it will eventually be dropped after the greeting term in all situations, but we’re not there yet!

Introductions

Introducing someone in writing can be tricky. This situation came up recently when we were creating a newsletter about the TESOL convention. We were introducing our team members and their job titles, and we were debating which commas were necessary. This case can be very difficult for students to sort out as well.

For example, why do we need commas in the following sentences?

  • Our head writer, Tara Benwell, will be at Booth 313 during the TESOL convention.
  • Tara Benwell, our head writer, will be at Booth 313 during the TESOL convention.
  • Stop by and say hello to our CEO, Ben Buckwold.
  • Stop by and say hello to Ben Buckwold, CEO of ESL Library and Sprout English.

But why don’t we use commas in the sentences below?

  • Head writer Tara Benwell will be at Booth 313 during the TESOL convention.
  • Stop by and say hello to CEO Ben Buckwold.

An easy way for students to remember comma usage in these cases is this: If you can drop the second phrase (name or title, depending on the sentence), you must use commas. If you can’t drop it, you can’t use commas. No dropping = no commas.

  • Our head writer, Tara Benwell, will be at Booth 313 during the TESOL convention.
  • Our head writer will be at Booth 313 during the TESOL convention. (correct)

In the example above, we can drop “Tara Benwell” and the sentence still makes sense and is correct, so we must use commas.

  • Tara Benwell, our head writer, will be at Booth 313 during the TESOL convention.
  • Tara Benwell will be at Booth 313 during the TESOL convention. (correct)

In the next example above, we can drop “our head writer” and the sentence still makes sense and is correct, so we must use commas.

  • Head writer Tara Benwell will be at Booth 313 during the TESOL convention.
  • Head writer will be at Booth 313 during the TESOL convention. (incorrect)

In the last example above, we can’t say “Head writer will be…” so we don’t need commas with the name.

Note that this rule works for all kinds of titles. It also affects the capitalization for certain civil titles such as “president” and “prime minister,” so it is a good rule for students to learn.

  • President Barack Obama gave a speech today. (correct)
  • The president, Barack Obama, gave a speech today. (correct)

For more information, see our posts on When Do We Capitalize “President”? and Restrictive and Non-Restrictive Adjective Clauses.

Birthdays

We also dealt with another comma issue in our newsletter about the TESOL convention. In honor of TESOL’s 50th anniversary, we had the following heading.

  • Happy anniversary, TESOL!

Again, traditionally, a comma is needed between the phrase and the name.

  • Happy birthday, John!
  • Good luck, Lisa!
  • Congratulations, team!

However, it is worth pointing out (to higher-level students) that people often drop the comma in these phrases on social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.). Some people also capitalize “birthday” for emphasis, and others use an acronym. Tell students that they may see and can write any of the following expressions with their own friends on social media (or in a card), but that the first version is the most “correct” (though not necessarily the most common these days).

  • Happy birthday, John! (correct)
  • Happy birthday John! (informal)
  • Happy Birthday John! (informal, common)
  • HBD John! (very informal)

Note that a period/full stop instead of an exclamation mark is also acceptable:

  • Happy birthday, John.

Practice

For more practice with comma usage in general, try our Writing in English lesson on How to Write a Compound Sentence.

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