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The letter didn’t start with her customary(,) Hi, I’m Aiko Kobayashi, the girl who … In fact, it only had two lines.

Do I need that comma? Why or why not?

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Since you choose to use italics instead of quotation marks to set off a direct quotation, you're already somewhat outside the "rules" and can do whatever you feel best illustrates your personal narrative. See this question on ELU:

https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/14876/use-quotation-marks-or-italics-for-written-quotes

However, it can help the reader understand the sentence better if you mark off the direct quote with commas, as you would any other quotation:

Hi, she said with a smile, do you come here often?

221A Baker Street, he muttered to the woman next to him. Why do I feel like I know that address?

In novels it's common practice to italicize internal dialogue -- a character's thoughts or feelings, or (sometimes) telepathic communication:

Stop reading my mind! she thought furiously
I'm sorry, I sometimes can't help it, he thought back.

I wonder what Gordon Ramsey would have for dinner tonight? she mused to herself as she wandered through the market.

So, using italics for direct quotes can be confusing as it's not clear whether the quote is internal or out loud. It's still fine, but you should use the same punctuation consistently so the reader can get used to it.

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  • Bear in mind that this ISN'T a direct quote of speech, so perhaps italics are suitable. I think I wouldn't bat an eyelid at seeing italics to denote quotations from letters in a novel. – Muzer Jun 28 '17 at 16:47
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Proceed as if the quotation marks were there. It is a direct quotation, so you do need a comma. See rule 3a here.

The letter didn't start with her customary, Hi, I'm Aiko Kobayashi, the girl who… In fact, it only had two lines.

| improve this answer | |
  • The phrasing "her customary" clearly indicates the secondary definition of customary: "according to a person's habitual practice." – Matthew Read Jun 28 '17 at 18:31

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