I was browsing Area 51 and I saw this comment:

I'm just calling a spade, a spade.

I'm never quite sure how to punctuate sentences like these where a phrase is repeated back to back, without any other words to separate them. Not putting punctuation feels weird, but so does adding a comma. Neither intuitively read like I would say them in a conversation.

With a comma, I would pause before reading the second "a spade"; without punctuation, the inflexion in my voice would be off.

So, is "I'm just calling a spade, a spade." properly punctuated?

  • By the way - is this a common saying in English? I know it is in Norwegian, but when I see it here in English, it looks strange... – awe Feb 2 '11 at 13:45
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    @awe: It is common. – Borror0 Feb 2 '11 at 13:51
  • @awe. Cecily Cardew: When I see a spade, I call it a spade. Gwendolin Fairfax: I am glad to say I have never seen a spade. It's obvious our social spheres have been widely different. – TRiG Aug 5 '11 at 0:59

You don't need the interposing comma. Just say

I'm just calling a spade a spade.

The Subaru commercials get this awkwardly wrong:

It's what makes a Subaru, a Subaru.

No comma needed there either.

Compare the idea using two other nouns.

I'm calling a spade a shovel.

You would never use a comma there. And just because the nouns are the same doesn't change the sentence structurally.

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  • +1 for Subaru getting it awkwardly wrong. There was another recent marketing campaign that did it wrong too, though I can't remember which. – nohat Feb 1 '11 at 23:03
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    I seem to recall that pre-1900-or-so texts used this sort of comma a lot more frequently. Perhaps it's just a style thing that's recently fallen out of favour? Not at all sure how to search for it, though. – Jon Purdy Feb 1 '11 at 23:57
  • I don't agree with the Subaru comment. After all, it's an ad, and they can say or write whatever they want. Granted, the comma is not at all needed, but I would argue that is there simply for effect. It actually makes the line more powerful and it forces the reader to pause at "Subaru"! I think it's a particularly great line and it would have been completely boring without the comma. – Jimi Oke Feb 2 '11 at 2:25
  • It's boring with or without the comma, and if it is there just for effect I think the effect is underwhelming. Like most ad slogans. But hey, YMMV. This Ad's For You. – Robusto Dec 1 '12 at 12:24

You don't use a comma. I agree it looks weird, but there is no pause or separation of ideas.

"I'm just calling a spade a spade" is the correct punctuation.

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  • Robusto beat me to it. – Spyplane Feb 1 '11 at 20:24

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