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I'm wondering how commas should be placed around the word "say" and the following clause in a sentence like this:

If you have, say, a bucket, that you would like to fill with water, then ...

This is how I speak the sentence, with minor beaks at ever comma. But it looks odd in text. I've seen others use punctuation in other seemingly random configurations, including with no commas at all, which looks even worse.

One of the reasons I can't work it out is that the bucket here appears to be acting like the subject, and a separate clause (although one that can't be removed without breaking the sentence).

Is there a "best" choice of punctuation for a sentence like this? And is there a name for this kind of built-in-example-clause-thingy?

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In terms of the terminology, you could call it an "interpolated clause". – Neil Coffey May 15 '12 at 5:24
The problem arises because of too many parentheticals and too much nesting -- you can restructure the sentence or better still, use smaller sentences when writing. Writing takes a bit more work than speech. – Kris May 15 '12 at 5:58
@Neil built-in-example-clause-thingy sounds much better and makes sense to me. – Kris May 15 '12 at 6:01
I don't necessarily disagree with that-- I'm just pointing out that this is another term that is sometimes used, obviously for a broader class of cases than just specifically an "example introducer". I also quite like the French term "incise", but it seems to be rarely used in English so I was reluctant to suggest it. – Neil Coffey May 15 '12 at 6:20
up vote 7 down vote accepted

It should be punctuated as in your example, with commas around the 'say'.

They are parenthetical commas, because they perform the same function as putting brackets around 'say' - "If you have (say) a bucket..." They are there to prevent the problem you correctly identified, by indicating that 'bucket' is not the object of 'say'.

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Hey @RoaringFish, thanks for the answer. I'm also asking about the comma after "bucket". Is that correct too? I edited the question slightly to clarify this. – naught101 May 15 '12 at 3:25
Oh... sorry. Misunderstood! The answer to that is yes and no. Yes, you can have a comma there, but no, you shouldn't have a comma in front of 'that'. If you keep the comma, 'that' should be changed to 'which'. "The bucket, which I would like to fill with water, is here" = "The bucket is here. I would like to fill it" ~ ~ "The bucket that I would like to fill with water is here" = "The bucket that I would like to fill is here. I am not interested in the other buckets." – Roaring Fish May 15 '12 at 4:29
The latter observation re that vs which is an arbitrary invention of some grammarians which you're free to adopt or ignore as you choose. In terms of the actual language, your sentence is grammatical with a pause before "that". So if you decide that the broad use of a comma is to represent a sentence-internal pause, it seems reasonable to place the comma where you have it. – Neil Coffey May 15 '12 at 5:17
All grammar is an arbitrary invention of some grammarian, including using commas to represent a pause. Are you suggesting we dispense with it all? I know that 'Speak as you like. Who cares about conventions?' is a popular viewpoint, but conventions have a purpose. The that/which convention is to distinguish defining from non-defining in speech, which is not exactly arbitrary. It is not wise to assume that the grammarians were all stupid... – Roaring Fish May 15 '12 at 5:34
There is a much stronger case for having a convention to represent a pause with some agreed-upon symbol-- and that convention is much more widely adopted (though you could of course still decide to ignore it if you wanted)-- than there is for artificially insisting upon 'which'~'that' as being non-restrictive~restrictive on the basis of a supposed ambiguity which fails to materialise in the vast majority of cases. – Neil Coffey May 15 '12 at 6:30

As you say, the commas as you have them probably represent how the sentence would be typically spoken, given the convention of a comma representing a sentence-internal pause.

But if you think it looks a bit comma-heavy, then you could use dashes instead of commas to delimit one of the interpolated clauses. For example:

If you have, say, a bucket — that you would like to fill with water — then ...

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I like dashes, but I don't think it would work as I was imagining the sentence. But now that you point it out, I realise that my example is a bit ambiguous, because it depends what comes after "then" - i.e. whether the next clause is related to filling the bucket with water (dashes won't work), or to the bucket itself (dashes or parentheses would work). Thanks! – naught101 May 16 '12 at 3:09

I would punctuate it thus:

If you have, say, a bucket that you would like to fill with water, then . . .

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In addition to punctuating would you mind expanding your answer? – macraf Apr 3 at 7:08

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