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How to use vocatives: addressing someone in dialogue

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What are vocatives?

Vocatives are used when addressing someone in dialogue. Examples could include a person’s name, a relation, a formal address, a formal title, a rank or job title, a term of affection or an insulting expression. Consider the following examples:

Relating to or denoting a case of nouns, pronouns, and adjectives in Latin and other languages, used in addressing or invoking a person or thing.

Oxford English Dictionary

‘Hello, Clare.’ (name)

‘Thank you, Mum.’ (relation)

‘Can I help you with your bags, sir?’ (formal address)

‘Thank you, Lord Denning.’ (formal title)

‘All present and correct, Captain.’ (rank or job title)

‘Oh, you shouldn’t have spent so much on me, you silly thing.’ (affectionate term)

‘What the hell do you think you are doing, you lowlife?’ (insulting term)

However, it’s best to use vocatives sparingly in fiction, as in real life we don’t tend to address people by their name or use a term of endearment every time we speak to someone. If vocatives are overused, the dialogue will feel contrived.

Why use vocatives?

Pixel Cells Pixel Presentation  - manfredsteger / Pixabay

To establish who is speaking

As in real life, fictional characters use each other’s names in dialogue. But in real life we know who we are speaking to, whereas in a story the reader won’t necessarily know who is speaking unless they are told, especially if there are more than two people in the conversation.

Anil, do you know why Simon has not come into work today?’ Sara checked her phone for the tenth time and looked worried. ‘Jen, what about you? Have you heard from him today?’

To learn more about the characters

Vocatives give the reader valuable information about the relationships between the characters, without including lengthy passages of narrative.

‘I told you never to darken my door again, you useless buffoon.’

‘Is that all for now, ma’am?’

‘You have all the answers as usual, my beloved.’

Corporal, what on earth are you doing?’

Published example

She picked it up and put it to her ear. ‘What’s up?’

‘Sorry for disturbing you, boss,’ he said. ‘Christmas and everything.’

The House in the Woods by Mark Dawson (Chapter 1, Kindle)

To add tension

Using someone’s name can increase tension and give a sense of the characters’ emotions and the mood of a scene.

Stella, quick, run. We have ten seconds to get out.’

‘Is it really that difficult, Bob, to understand a few clear instructions?’

Kip! What are you doing back early?’

Repetition of names

In reality, we wouldn’t repeat someone’s name over and over during a conversation. And the same should apply in fiction.

‘Hello, Omar. How are you?’

‘Fliss! Long time no see. I’m fine.’

‘So I see. You’re looking very well, Omar.’

‘Thank you, Fliss. So do you.’

‘Where are you working now, Omar?’

‘Well, I’m finally a self-employed editor, Fliss.’

‘Omar, that’s wonderful. I know you always wanted to do that. Is it easy to get work with publishers?’

‘Fliss, it is a hard slog I can tell you.’

It makes for tedious reading, doesn’t it?  The reader can work out who is talking without having the names repeated on every line. In reality, the conversation would probably be along the lines of:

‘Hello, Omar. How are you?’

‘Fliss! Long time no see. I’m fine.’

‘So I see. You’re looking very well.’

‘Thank you. So do you’.

‘Where are you working now?’

‘Well, I’m finally a self-employed editor.’

‘Omar, that’s wonderful. I know you always wanted to do that. Is it easy to get work with publishers?’

‘It’s a hard slog I can tell you.’

Vocative comma

If vocatives are used without commas, the sentence will be ambiguous and confusing. A vocative comma is used before or after a name or a form of address in dialogue. If the name of the person being addressed is in the middle of the sentence, then a comma appears before and after the name.

Beginning of sentence

‘Pilar, you look stunning in that red dress.’

Sweetheart, please stop nagging me.’

For extra emphasis or tension, you may want to use a full stop, exclamation mark or question mark following a vocative at the beginning of a sentence.

Muttley! You naughty dog.’

Sonia? Is that really you?’

Middle of sentence

‘Crumbs, Tarquin, what is that supposed to be?’

‘Oh, Tilly, don’t do that.’

End of sentence

‘Would you like a glass of wine, Isaac?’

‘It’s so lovely to see you, Grandad.’

‘Back against the wall. Now. Do as I say, you scumbag.’

‘Thank you, madam. I’ll arrange for the bill to be prepared

Without a vocative comma

If a vocative comma is not included, the sentence may be confusing. The first example below could be correct but including a comma before officer makes the actual meaning clear.

‘Would you like a sweet officer?’

‘Would you like a sweet, officer?’

Do vocatives need to start with a capital letter?

Alphabet Typography Letters Abc  - VECTOR_STUDIO / Pixabay

In some circumstances, vocatives do need to start with a capital letter.

As a reminder, a vocative is used with a person’s name, a formal address, a rank or job title, a term of affection or an insulting expression.

A person’s name

Names (proper nouns) used as vocatives always start with a capital letter, unless the person deliberately chooses to start their name with a lower-case letter.

Published example

She had pale red hair, twisted up at the back and clipped into place. She smiled down at Ellie and said, ‘Good afternoon, Ellie. I hope you’ve got your brain switched on?’

Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell (Chapter 5, Kindle)

A relation

Vocatives used to address a relation always start with a capital letter.

‘Oh no, I forgot your birthday again, Uncle David.’

‘Hello, Grandma.’

‘Please, Mother, stop nagging me. I am fifty years old.’

‘I see you are dad dancing again, Dad.

If the relationship title is indirectly mentioned, as in the example above of dad dancing, then this will be in lower case. This also applies if the indirect address appears in the narrative.

‘I think your Aunty Pam is the best aunty in the world.’

(direct mention = upper case and indirect mention = lower case)

‘Will your father be joining us for dinner this evening?’

Monty followed his grandad out of the restaurant. Would he need helping into Dad’s car? He didn’t want to offend him by assuming.

Published example

Mum, can I borrow the camcorder later to make a house video?’

‘Yes, but ask your dad first.

The Holiday by T. M. Logan (Chapter 2, Kindle)

Formal address

Vocaties used to formally address a person do not need a capital letter unless they are being used at the start of a sentence.

‘Can I help you with your bags, sir?’

Madam, please come this way.’

‘Yes, m’lady,’ said Parker.

‘Hey, lady, give me your bag.’

Published example

‘Do you have children, detective? Mrs Lyle said.

I stood up to face her.

‘Yes, ma’am. Just the one.’

‘Boy or girl?’

‘I have a little girl, ma’am. Eight years’ old. Scout.’

#taken: Wrong time. Wrong place. Wrong girl, Tony Parsons (Chapter 1, Kindle)

Formal titles

Vocatives indicating formal titles start with a capital letter.

‘It is indeed a pleasure to meet you, Your Majesty.’

‘Thank you for the generous donation, Lady Grantham.’

Published example

At this, counsel for the prosecution, Mrs Price, gives a small exhalation and begins to lift her head. The judge looks over his glasses at the young woman barrister and she raises the flat of her hand in response. ‘Forgive me, My Lord, I’m getting there, yes…’

Apple Tree Yard, Louise Doughty (Prologue, Kindle)

Rank or job title

Vocatives indicating rank or titles start with a capital letter.

‘Are the troops ready for battle, Colonel?’

‘The cabin is ready for departure, Captain.’

Published example

Detective Superintendent, I’ve a request from a Brighton Central detective sergeant for you to attend a suspicious death at a house in Dyke Road Avenue.

Not Dead Enough by Peter James (Chapter 5, Kindle)

If the relationship title is indirectly mentioned, as in the above example, then this should be in lower case. This applies if the indirect address appears in the narrative.

‘Go down the station and speak with the duty sergeant.’

‘The captain has said no and that is final.’

I thought the councillor that was speaking was full of hot air, but Councillor Foster soon shut him up.

Terms of affection

Vocatives used as terms of affection do not need a capital letter unless they are being used at the start of a sentence.

‘Thank you, my love.’

Darling, you are my saving grace.’

‘Have I told you, sweetie pie, that you are wonderful?’

Published example

‘Look at this!’ he said. ‘Cilla, darling, look, look!’

Absolute Proof by Peter James (Chapter 14, Kindle)

Insulting term

Vocatives used as insulting terms do not need a capital letter unless they are being used at the start of a sentence.

‘Do one, knobhead.’

Numbnuts, you’ve forgotten the biscuits again.’

‘Please, you doofus, concentrate for once.’

Final words…

Vocatives:

  • establish who is being addressed
  • increase tension and show mood and emotion
  • provide information about the characters
  • should not be overused
  • should be punctuated correctly.
References

Absolute Proof, Peter James, Pan Macmillan, 2018

Apple Tree Yard, Louise Doughty, Faber & Faber, 2013

Not Dead Enough, Peter James, Pan, 2008

#taken: Wrong Time. Wrong Place. Wrong Girl, Tony Parsons, Cornerstone Digital, 2019

The Holiday, T. M. Logan, Zaffre, 2019

The House in the Woods, Mark Dawson, Unputdownable, 2020

Then She Was Gone, Lisa Jewell, Cornerstone Digital, 2017

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I’m Clare Black, a fiction book editor based in Stockport, UK. I help independent authors prepare for publishing by fixing the important details and improving the readability of their books. I specialise in crime, thriller and contemporary fiction, but I am happy to consider other genres. I am a Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP).

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