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Is this sentence punctuated correctly with no commas surrounding "at least," or does it need them?

Why or why not? Adverbial phrase? Essential or nonessential? I have been looking at it too long and can't tell anymore!

Well, there was the one time at least the mother had him in the store.

N.B. This is a transcript of actual testimony in a court case being transcribed, so the wording cannot be changed.

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Delete at least. It does no work in the sentence. Rewrite the sentence as: Well, the mother had him in the store at least once or Well, there was the one time that the mother had him in the store. "At least" is merely a verbosity in the original sentence. It's strictly colloquial spoken English and shouldn't be written unless you want dialog to show how thoughtless the speaker is, just tossing words in as interjections because the speaker can't integrate tongue and brain. –  user21497 Dec 8 '12 at 14:23
    
@BillFranke, without “at least” the sentence would say it happened once, a single time. The current form allows for multiple instances, and “at least” is neither redundant nor verbose. –  jwpat7 Dec 8 '12 at 15:29
    
@jwpat7: True. But at least is placed wrong. It normally precedes the quantifier it modifies (at least once), so this tends to get read as at least the mother had him in the store instead of the one time at least. Bill has better suggestions for rewriting. –  John Lawler Dec 8 '12 at 17:01
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1 Answer

up vote 2 down vote accepted

You should parenthesize the expression with commas in that sentence:

Well, there was the one time, at least, the mother had him in the store.

If you don't do so, the sentence becomes ambiguous. Do you mean to emphasize "the one time at least" or "at least the mother"? It's not clear. But setting off the expression with commas eliminates confusion.

Note that you could accomplish the same thing by not using ellipsis. The word that is implied but omitted in your example. Put it back and the ambiguity goes away:

Well, there was the one time at least that the mother had him in the store.

I would still prefer commas there, however:

Well, there was the one time, at least, that the mother had him in the store.

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That's it- ambiguity! Thank you so much for clearing that up. I'm editing a court transcript, so I cannot change the text, only the punctuation. –  jennifer Dec 8 '12 at 14:33
    
Thank you all- the lawyer had asked the witness: On how many occasions have you been in the company of her son? The answer was: Never. And the next statement was made by the lawyer: Well, there was the one time at least when the mother had him in the store. –  jennifer Dec 8 '12 at 16:46
    
@jennifer: The normal way to give thanks on SE sites is to upvote and/or accept answers. –  Robusto Dec 8 '12 at 16:47
    
@jennifer (2 up): That worries me. The omission of the famous 'cannibals' comma' is enough to change an announcement that tea is ready to a possible death-threat: "We're going to eat, John." Such scope for error! And nuances of tone must be missed in a transcript. And polysemy will almost certainly be more liable to cause confusion in the written word. I think recordings should replace transcriptions. –  Edwin Ashworth Dec 8 '12 at 17:01
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