Donner Party comma: The comma of direct address.
[T]he Donner Party Comma is the comma that makes all the difference between “Let’s eat, Grandma!” and “Let’s eat Grandma!”
I’m not sure how Stan—who lives in Galway, Ireland—learned this term (maybe he’ll leave a comment and let us know). Perhaps he picked it up from the Heads Up Blog, which is where I first noted it in May 2010, in a post about a headline in the New York Post:
But if the copydesk at the Post would like a free hint: You know, you really could use a big old Donner Party comma** in a phrase like “Beam me up Scotty.” This is “Star Trek,” not “Fantastic Voyage.”
(The asterisks lead to a footnote about Prof. Fuhlhage—Dr. Michael Fuhlhage of Auburn University?—who, says Heads Up, “was the first to put it in question form: Donner Party or dinner party?”)
The account of the snow-stranded Donner Party, whose members survived the ghastly winter of 1846 by (allegedly) eating some of their dead relatives, is part of the California canon.* George R. Stewart’s history of the tragic journey, Ordeal by Hunger, originally published in 1936, made an indelible impression on me, in part because I happened to read it during a snowbound ski vacation near Donner Pass. I did not get much sleep during that trip. You can read most of the book online at Google Books.
More reading advice: The Subversive Copy Editor blog, by Carol Fisher Saller, is a lively and authoritative resource for writers and editors. The post on which Stan commented is all about “fun language words”—crash blossom, Mondegreen, mountweazel, and others. Saller writes the Chicago Manual of Style Online’s Q&A and is the author of The Subversive Copy Editor, a book-length guide for manuscript editors.
* I think I was in junior high school when I first heard the classic Donner Party joke, which is also a good illustration of the Donner Party comma. Restaurant hostess: “Donner, party of 10! … Donner, party of 9! … Donner, party of 8!” And so on.