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Throughout my life, I have often heard narrators say a very interesting type of statement. I am wondering how to effectively write it in a formal way. It looks something like the following.

"Sometimes there is a thief, a thief that you can trust, a thief that won't let you down even though he is a thief."

I am most curious about the "thief, a thief you can trust, a thief" part. Is commas the correct punctuation, or should a semicolon or an em dash be used somewhere in that sentence? We have all heard people speak like this, but I have never learned how to write it formally and correctly. Please help me.

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    There are clear and formal rules for spelling, and less-clear and less-formal rules for grammar, but even fewer formal and clear rules for punctuation, outside the handful of major ones (questions end with a ?, sentences end with a . , quoted material is clearly indicated, etc). In short, there is no "formal and correct way" to punctuate your example. Maybe invest in a style guide, like the Chicago Manual of Style or the AP guide. Though I think you'll find specific questions like this somewhat difficult to answer, even with those tomes.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Dec 4, 2016 at 17:14
  • I think that your phrasing and punctuation are spot on. I don't know the grammatical terms to describe the last two clauses, but that kind of structure is common in English, and often the mark of a sophisticated writer.
    – ktm5124
    Commented Dec 4, 2016 at 19:59
  • @DanBron I disagree. I think that the way the OP punctuated the sentence is indeed the formal and correct way. It would be a mistake to replace either of those commas with an em-dash, or even worse, a semi-colon. The former would take away from its beauty; the latter would be grammatically incorrect as the last two clauses are dependent.
    – ktm5124
    Commented Dec 4, 2016 at 20:04

3 Answers 3

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Your sentence is actually fairly sophisticated, and I wouldn't change anything about it. It might be helpful to go over the grammatical terms which describe its structure.

Sometimes there is a thief, a thief that you can trust, a thief that won't let you down even though he is a thief.

Okay, let's break it down.

Sometimes there is a thief, independent clause

a thief that you can trust, dependent clause

a thief that won't let you down even though he is a thief. dependent clause

The two dependent clauses modify the noun thief. They serve to further characterize the idea. If you were to only read the first clause, you would know nothing about the thief. But after reading the next two clauses, you know exactly what kind of the thief the speaker is talking about.

The sentence has a poetic ring, because the repetition of thief makes the topic unforgettable. It also introduces a contrast in ideas: a thief that you can trust, a thief that won't let you down. These kinds of paradoxes have always fascinated readers. The Bible is full of paradoxes.

This sentence reads like it came straight from a novel. You might not find sentences like these in newspapers like the NYTimes, or in scholarly journals, as these sources try to keep a more objective tone. Instead, I would expect to find sentences like these in creative writing.

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    No, I think there are three independent clauses in apposition, each starting with the same structure Sometimes there is, which is deleted in the last two clauses by conjunction reduction: Sometimes there is a thief; sometimes there is a thief (that) you can trust; sometimes there is a thief that won't let you down even though he is a thief. Commented Dec 4, 2016 at 20:22
  • @JohnLawler Oh, that's interesting. I was going by the rule that an independent clause must stand on its own. Is this rule an oversimplification? Because superficially, they don't stand on their own. But if you supply the implicit "there is", then each of them would.
    – ktm5124
    Commented Dec 4, 2016 at 20:28
  • Yes. That's a vast oversimplification. Bill washed and dried the dishes is a compound sentence, from Bill washed the dishes and Bill dried the dishes, with the repeated material deleted by a regular rule. Appositives like my son the doctor are compound, in that they combine two referring expressions without a conjunction, but complex in that they may involve subordinate structures (like a nonrestrictive relative clause). Commented Dec 4, 2016 at 20:35
  • @JohnLawler Hm, would it be correct to re-label the dependent clauses as apposite phrases? It strikes me that, on a superficial level, they aren't even full clauses, as the subject thief has no predicate. Just wondering about the best terminology. Maybe just "appositive" would be better.
    – ktm5124
    Commented Dec 4, 2016 at 20:44
  • I have to go now but I will give this answer more attention later... after some research and reading through John Lawler's comments.
    – ktm5124
    Commented Dec 4, 2016 at 20:45
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Your sentence looks great. It's very effective, and has several interesting things going on in it. I kind of thought there might be some rhetorical devices going on, so I looked up a list of rhetorical devices. Here are some that I selected as being relevant:

  • Amplification - "repeats a word or expression for emphasis - Love, real love, takes time." (In your case, the repetition of "thief" makes the sentence more effective.)

  • Appositive - "places a noun or phrase next to another noun for descriptive purposes - Mary, queen of the land, hosted the ball." (I think this gets to the crux of what you were asking about -- it shows how to set a restatement off from the surrounding text with commas.)

  • Antanagoge - "placing a good point or benefit next to a fault criticism, or problem in order to reduce the impact or significance of the negative point: True, he always forgets my birthday, but he buys me presents all year round." (I took this definition from a different source. I'm not certain, but it looks as though this describes how you turn "thief" from a bad thing to a good thing. I"m sure someone will let me know if this isn't the best match....)

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As a former editor, I would keep it short and just write "Sometimes there is a thief you can trust and won't let you down, even though he is a thief."

So leave out '2 thieves and add the comma after 'down'.

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    You actually need a subject for the second relative clause: Sometimes there is a thief (that) you can trust and that won't let you down. The that for the first clause is optional, but it sets up the subject that for the second, and makes the structure more parallel. Commented Dec 4, 2016 at 18:42
  • @Inge I actually disagree with the idea of keeping it short. I think the original sentence is very eloquent, so eloquent that I wouldn't change a word.
    – ktm5124
    Commented Dec 4, 2016 at 19:57
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    Note that the OP referred to "narrators". In a newspaper report, this kind of repetition would be out of place. In telling a story, it is a sophisticated rhetorical device.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Dec 4, 2016 at 20:27

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