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So i have the following

"you've never pissed off a Miko before have you? they can forcefully bind a Geis to you if you do not comply to the laws they set for their shrine and that Miko really doesn't like the Press hounding Her Ladyship on this founds. she's kind of brutal [but I digress,] she beat a drunk man half to death with her heisoku because he kept annoying the other Miko by asking them out, took several Knights to stop her and now he literally craps his pants from the mere mention of a shrine [but I digress], don't piss her off lest you get an Expulsion/Torture Geis"

I know "but I digress" is used to symbolize when someone has gone off topic but returns to being on topic but with the above "but I digress" sounds right both before and after the off-topic portion (the non-bold italics), at least in my head (cold comfort that).

So when the phase "but I digress" gets used is it normally used before going off-topic or after?

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    My impression: almost always after, by way of announcing a return to the main or proper topic. To introduce a digression, something more like "If I may digress a little here" seems more appropriate. Commented Dec 18, 2015 at 1:58
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    Generally after, and often at a point when the digression has become painfully obvious already. As often as not it's used with a substantial hint of sarcasm.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Dec 18, 2015 at 3:58
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    Note that "I digress" is present tense- meaning you should be doing it at the time of utterance. That means you can't say it to announce a digression because at that point you haven't started.
    – Jim
    Commented Dec 18, 2015 at 4:44
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    @Jim simple present can refer to future time, so someone could say I digress or Now I digress to refer what one is going to do.
    – NES
    Commented Dec 18, 2015 at 7:38
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    @NES- That sounds mighty weird to my ears.
    – Jim
    Commented Dec 18, 2015 at 9:36

1 Answer 1

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A number of the earliest instances of "but I digress" that a Google Books search for that phrase finds appear as part of longer expressions.

The most common of these longer clauses is the phrase "But I digress too far"—an expression that appears in Richard Baxter, Poetical Fragments: Heart-Imployment with God and It Self (1689) [the last sentence in a paragraph]; in Browne Willis, Notitia Parliamentaria, or An History of the Counties (1715) [the first clause of the first sentence of a new paragraph]; and in John Ray, The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of the Creation (1717) [the last sentence in a paragraph].

Likewise, the phrase "But I digress too much" appears at the beginning of a sentence and line of verse in John Chalkhill & Izaak Walton, Thealma and Clearchus: A Pastoral Romance (1683).

And the phrase "But I digress from my Design" appears at the beginning of a sentence and line of poetry in Samuel Butler, "The Whig's Ghost", in Posthumous Works in Prose and Verse (1717).

In all of these instances, the phrase containing "but I digress" occurs in the context of an author who has caught himself going off on a tangent from the main point of the discussion. The observation comes after the fact of having digressed already and of continuing (at least until the moment of making the observation) to digress.

The earliest of the ten unique matches for "but I digress" that a Google Books search finds for the period 1600–1718 uses the phrase similarly to the way the longer expressions do—as an after-the-fact observation. To convey a sense of how the phrase works in place, here is the final third of the relevant paragraph from The Religion of Protestants: A Safe way to Salvation (1674):

As therefore the light, determining the Eye to see, though it presupposeth the Eye which it determines, as every Action doth the object on which it is imployed, yet it self is presuppos'd and antecedent to the act of seeing, as the cause is alwaies to its effect: So, if you will suppose that Scripture, like light moves the Understanding to assent, the Understanding (that is the eye and object on which it workes) must be before this influence upon it; But the Assent, that is, the belief where to the Scripture moves and the Understanding is moved, which answers to the act of seeing, must come after. For if it did assent already, To what purpose should the Scripture do that which was done before? Nay, indeed, How were it possible it should be so; any more than a Father can beget a Son that he hath already? Or an Architect build a house that is built already? Or that this very world can be made again before it is unmade? Transubstantiation indeed is fruitful of such Monsters. But they that have not sworn themselves to the defence of Error, will easily perceive, that jam factum facere, and factum infectum facere, are equally impossible. But I digress.

In the preceding excerpt, everything from the sentence beginning "Nay, indeed, How were it possible ..." amounts to a digression from the earlier line of argument comparing Faith to the human eye and Scripture to light.

This is typical of the context in which "but I digress" appears in the ten earliest Google Books instances; and I believe that the phrase remains true to its origins in being applied today, in the vast majority of instances, backward as a comment upon a digression already committed, rather than prospectively upon a digression about to occur.

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