It’s Thanksgiving, which here in the States means a lot of (American) football and “Go Team!” exhortations. Being an editor, I’ve accepted “Go Team!” as an opportunity to practice emotional equanimity. It’s bad punctuation, right? If you want your team to go, you urge, command, or exhort them with direct address, which requires a comma. Leaving out the comma is a either a protest against pedantry or a concession to the vernacular, depending on where editing fits into your life.
But recently I’ve had my doubts and posted the following on Facebook:
Okay, fellow editors, help me out. I want to argue that “Go Team!” is not an imperative. If it were, it would be direct address and merit the comma, but the emphasis is not on the “Go” but on the team name, so this seems closer to a subjunctive and therefore the lack of comma is not merely informal but strictly correct. Does this seem right?
A few veteran authors, editors, and teachers jumped in and said no, it’s imperative, end of story, so I quibbled for a bit and one correspondent said that I was making a case for the optative mood.
Consider the difference between “God, help us!” and “God help us!” One is asking God directly for help; the other is just an interjection. The one with the comma is imperative, clearly. But the other’s optative, an expression of hope or desire that, in certain other languages, is conjugated in the subjunctive form (subjunctive is a mood, but conjugation alone rarely covers fine gradations of mood, in any language). Consider the difference between “Gott hilf uns!” versus “Gott hilfe uns!,” which both are more or less acceptable in German. The first is imperative. Even without the comma, it’s clear that God is being directly addressed and asked for help; it could use a comma, at least if translated into English. The second is the subjunctive conjugation and so does not need the comma; it’s more an expression of hope than a direct appeal.
“Go Team!” isn’t necessarily bad punctuation. If you’re directly exhorting the team to “go,” then yeah, it’s not rigorous English, but if you’re merely shouting out your support for the team, like one Roman greeting another with “Hail Caesar!,” then it strikes me as correct in every way.