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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?

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  • 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, 2015 at 16:19

2 Answers 2

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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, 2015 at 12:30
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    When initiating a conversation, it's basically a more informal form of "Excuse me." May 2, 2015 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, 2015 at 18:15
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    @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, 2015 at 22:42
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    @alephzero I agree entirely that "I say" was routinely used (and still is, by some people) in Britain at the start of a question. I say, do you know what's happening on Wednesday?. Where I totally part company with you, however, is the idea that it was uniquely used by "people who thought they had an automatic right to be listened to by the rest of humanity". My father, the son of an agricultural worker, used it regularly.
    – WS2
    Jan 2, 2018 at 22:12
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In Australian English, you don't use say at the start of a sentence, unless it's an instruction or suggestion, such as "say it clearly" or "say it again".

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