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I can use 'say' as a noun :

(Chicago Tribune 2007) Aflac Insurance - the first U.S. company to voluntarily offer its shareholders a say on pay.

OED

(Presumably it is an uncountable noun and the shareholders were able to have their say.)

But I can also use it as a 'limiter' or 'definer' :

If I were to, say, crash my car : would my insurance company lend me a courtesy car under my policy ?

What part of speech is 'say' in this sentence ?

And what does it, technically, mean ?

Does it mean 'let us say' ?

Does it have the same meaning in :

Say, man - have you got a light ?

I have found it difficult to take this any further as I do not know what part of speech to look up and the word is so common in its other uses that I am frustrated in defining this particular usage.

  • Yes, it is the short of (let's) say - ​ used to introduce a suggestion or possible example of something: Try and finish the work by, let's say, Friday. Say/Let's say (= if we accept) (that) the journey takes three hours, then you'd be there by two o'clock. dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/let-s-say – user121863 Mar 3 '18 at 15:53
  • @user5768790 So, if used on its own (not as the full 'let us say') is it a verb ? And is it imperative ? – Nigel J Mar 3 '18 at 15:56
  • @user5768790 I take it that your link is referring to let+s as the only known contraction of its kind 'let's' ? – Nigel J Mar 3 '18 at 16:01
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    I might interject that it's a ... now what was that word? – Hot Licks Mar 3 '18 at 16:04
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Interesting question. My initial reaction was as yours: That it started out as ‘let us say’. French uses the expression ‘disons’ in exactly the same way: to indicate something given as an illustration or for the sake of argument. French has a first person plural imperative, where English has to cobble one together.

OED recognises this parenthetical usage of ‘,say,’ as being equivalent to “,shall we say?” or “,let us say,”. So you have that support, though I could not find a specific example of its use from OED and so could not trace its origin.

I could find nothing helpful in the Oxford English Grammar either. So I am left with the question: can this usage be parsed? I don’t think it can. It might stand for ‘shall we say?’, which would make it first person plural future active indicative interrogative; It could be first person plural imperative active.

I would suggest that it is what in ancient Greek I would call a signpost expression: a signal. There may be a technical term for it, but I am not aware of it.

What ‘,say,’ is doing is to send an instruction to our brains about how to read or understand the next word(s) or even the sentence as a whole. It is saying something like “don’t take this literally as the only situation I want to know about”, or “this is for illustrative purposes only”. So If the insurance agent of your example gave an unqualified ‘yes’, knowing that if you took your car off road and got stuck or or had it stolen, having left your keys in the ignition the answer would be ‘no’, she would not have responded fairly.

There are other such verbal signposts: as it were, to apologise for a somewhat metaphorical way of saying something, could just about be parsed but that is not the point; bless him is not a request to the Almighty to bring blessings on the small child that has just done or said something appealingly funny, parsed as imperative as it may be. They are, in the sense I have described, ‘signpost expressions’: parsing, even where possible, is not the point.

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  • Excellent answer. Thank you. Up-voted and chosen as answer. – Nigel J Mar 3 '18 at 23:26
  • It might be considered a "particle" (though the definition of particle is rather nebulous, especially for English). – aschepler Mar 4 '18 at 10:57
  • @aschepler Exactly! I avoided the word ‘particle’ because of its (now) rarified connection with classical philology. I felt also that ‘say’ is not quite what a ‘particle’ is. The nearest parallel in English would be ‘both ... and...’, but even that isn’t quite right. There is a famous book on the subject by J.D. Deniston. Wictionary gives a fair definition: “Ancient Greek terms that do not belong to any of the inflected grammatical classes, often lacking their own grammatical functions and forming other parts of speech or expressing the relationship between clauses.” – Tuffy Mar 12 '18 at 10:12
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"Say" used as an interjection, means that the speaker does not commit himself in detail to the following characterization, but offers it only as an example which will clarify in a general way what he means to be saying. Or she, of course.

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    Webster: An interjection is a word or phrase that is grammatically independent from the words around it, and mainly expresses feeling rather than meaning. – Hot Licks Mar 3 '18 at 19:08
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    I don’t know what page everyone else is looking at but this is the correct answer and it is confirmed by the OED here oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/171590 (free page) – Laurel Mar 4 '18 at 3:18
  • Laurel: Look at 17. (or search for "imper.") – Wlerin Mar 5 '18 at 7:04
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    @Laurel That's a neat trick, making an OED page available free. How do you do that ? – Nigel J Mar 7 '18 at 7:20
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    @NigelJ L33t haxor skillz... It was OED’s word of the day at some point and is thus free. – Laurel Mar 7 '18 at 18:49
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For your first example,

  • ....company to voluntarily offer its shareholders a say on pay.

The meaning should be:

noun ~ 1. dictum, or 2. a chance to speak

For your second example,

  • If I were to, say, crash my car

The meaning should be:

verb transitive ~ 5. to estimate, assume, hypothesize ("as he is, say, forty...")

And for your third example,

  • Say, man - have you got a light?

...which may be rephrased in the form of a statement,

  • Man, say you have got a light.

The meaning should be:

verb transitive ~ 2. to state; declare; tell; express in words

...with the object being "you have got a light."

So really, the question has a demanding or begging tone (not very polite).

[c.1959 Webster's New 20th C. Dictionary, Unabridged (unavailable online)]

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    I think the OED would consider the third usage an interjection, with the meaning "Used to express surprise or to attract attention." Two of their examples for this meaning are Say! What are you laughing at? and Say—d'you run with our machine? – Peter Shor Mar 3 '18 at 16:50
  • I understand completely where you're coming from, however I speak American English as my native tongue and rely heavily on Noah Webster's dictionary. I apologize for any resulting confusion, but I can't pretend to be British. I can only hope that the logic in my answer is clear enough. – Bread Mar 3 '18 at 16:59
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    I think the logic in your answer is fine. And I don't think there's any real difference in British and American usage here. I just think it's a word for which reasonable people can have different opinions about which part of speech it is. – Peter Shor Mar 3 '18 at 18:40
  • I agree with you on that point. I just gave my preferred opinion here in my answer, as I often do. I fully comprehend that there are other people who can and do disagree with my opinions. – Bread Mar 3 '18 at 18:45
  • The object of "say" -- the thing we are asking someone to say -- is surely "the answer to my question", where the question is 'have you got a light?'". – Michael Kay Mar 4 '18 at 0:40
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In "If I were to, say, crash my car" say seems to be a discourse marker.

It's used to "to offer an illustration or an example", which Ian McCormick's The Art of Connection, as quoted in wikipedia gives as an example of a use of discourse marker.

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