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Frankly, My Dear, Do You Need a Comma After ‘Frankly’?

Did you know that in the book "Gone with the Wind," Rhett Butler said "My dear..." instead of "Frankly, my dear..."?

By
Brenda Thomas, writing for
3-minute read
Episode #815
The Quick And Dirty

You need the comma after "frankly" in "Frankly, my dear..." because the word comes before the direct address "my dear."

The phrase “Frankly, my dear,” begins one of the most memorable movie lines. Rhett Butler (played by Clark Gable), said those three words to start his final, parting line to Scarlett O’Hara (played by Vivien Leigh) in the 1939 movie “Gone with the Wind.” Even if you’ve never seen that movie, you’ve likely heard that movie line. It created quite a stir because it ended with profanity that was frowned upon onscreen at the time, even though the movie producer was granted an exception by the Hays Office to use it. Eventually, that controversy died down, but another controversy arose concerning that line that has nothing to do with profanity and everything to do with punctuation.

Frankly, my dear...

In the book “Gone with the Wind,” the word “frankly” is absent from that iconic line spoken by Rhett to Scarlett. The line just begins with “My dear,” followed by a comma. Movie producer David Selznick added “Frankly,” followed by a comma, and he was insistent about that, as can be seen in his list of possible, less-offensive ways to end the line. Each suggestion that he considered began with “Frankly, my dear,” with a comma after “Frankly” and after “dear.”  For example, one of those suggestions was for Rhett to say, “Frankly, my dear, it is of no consequence,” which might be what some of you are thinking about this article’s focus on the commas in that line. 

Is it of any consequence whether or not “frankly” is followed by a comma? It was to William Safire, a writer for The New York Times. In 1994, when CBS produced its spinoff “Scarlett” series, one of its advertisements had the beginning of that iconic “Gone with the Wind” movie line captioned onscreen as “Frankly my dear,” with no comma after “Frankly.” That prompted Safire to give CBS his annual Bloopie Award because of the missing punctuation. 

Adverbs at the beginning of a sentence

But, wait, an adverb at the beginning of a sentence doesn’t have to have a comma, right? That’s correct. 

The word “frankly” is an adverb and when used at the beginning of a sentence, it is called a sentence adverb. Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs, but they can also modify an entire sentence. Some people say that an introductory or sentence adverb always has to be followed by a comma. However, the Chicago Manual of Style says sentence adverbs can be followed by a comma, but they don’t have to be.  So you could write “Actually, I don’t care,” with or without a comma after “actually.” Either way is acceptable (at least to the Chicago Manual of Style).

Commas with a direct address

However, if a sentence begins with a sentence adverb followed by a direct address, then you do need a comma after the adverb. The comma is necessary because of the direct address. As William Safire explained in his Bloopie Award, “In direct address, the name or its substitute (as in “my dear” or “my fine feathered friend”) must be set off by commas.” So you would write “Actually, my dear, it is of consequence,” using a comma after “Actually.”  

The vocative case

The technical term for words of direct address in a sentence is the vocative case, and words in the vocative case are set off by commas. If you have a sentence that begins with the vocative case, such as “my dear,” and you add a sentence adverb, such as “frankly,” then a comma must follow the adverb to set off the direct address. 

In other words, frankly, my dear, you do need a comma after “frankly” in Rhett Butler’s famous parting line to Scarlett O’Hara. 

Image by brent_nashville @Flicker, CC BY-NC 2.0

About the Author

Brenda Thomas, writing for Grammar Girl

Brenda Thomas is a freelance writer and online educator.