Since English is not my native language, I have a hard time understanding some expressions I hear in movies. From what I gather, it's possible to start a question with "say", such as "Say, do you know any good restaurants around here?"

What is the proper usage for this structure? Do people frequently use it in conversation? Is it a rude thing to say?

  • Say, that's a nice question you've posted. What do others think, could we expand this to cover the non-question usages, origins and evolution of the phrase? – Patrick M May 2 '15 at 16:19

It's not rude. "Say" is a discourse marker used to open a conversation or a new topic with no other introduction or preamble.

For example, you and I might be talking about the weather and I might suddenly realize I'm hungry. "Say, do you know a good restaurant around here?" I might ask, using say as a way to break off one topic and introduce another.

Or you might go up to someone on the street and ask them, "Say, can you tell me what time it is?"

In each case the word functions to facilitate what may otherwise seem to be too abrupt or confusing a transition. It functions in the same way "Hey" would, but is a degree more polite and formal.

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    By the time I had finished mine, you had posted, and we're on the same page. I would call it a flag that you are going to say something, but you improved on me with your change-of subject. Upvote. Re OP's final question, no, not rude at all, nothing to worry about. – David Pugh May 2 '15 at 12:30
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    When initiating a conversation, it's basically a more informal form of "Excuse me." – GalacticCowboy May 2 '15 at 14:58
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    The old-fashioned upper-class British version was "I say, ....", or "I say, old chap, .....". Presumably "O say" predates 1814 in AmEng: "O say, can you see by the dawn's early light .... O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave?" (Francis Scott Key). – alephzero May 2 '15 at 18:15
  • @alephzero: I don't think those are the same thing at all. "I say" is a first-person statement, just like it sounds. "Say" or "O say" are a request for the other person to say something, meaning "Please tell me". You wouldn't use "I say" in an interrogatory context. – Ben Voigt May 2 '15 at 22:42
  • @BenVoigt Maybe you wouldn't use it to start a question, but it was used in the UK as a means of getting attention before any form of sentence - declarative, interrogative, or imperative - by the class of people who thought they had an automatic right to be listened to by the rest of humanity. – alephzero May 3 '15 at 0:21

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