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I understand that colloquially there's no comma before the second thanks in the phrase

Thanks, but no thanks.

But, strictly logically, this would mean:

Thanks, but I have no thanks for you;
Thanks, but I'm not thankful for the offer.

Both sounds rather rude, but I understand it's not the meaning. If however one uses a second comma:

Thanks, but no, thanks,

the correct implementation is revealed:

Thanks, but no, I refuse the offer; thank you once again.

Indeed, without the first "thanks", there is formally a comma in "No, thanks" or "no, thank you".

Why exactly is the comma omitted here? What grammar rule is applied, or is it an exception? Are there any other common examples where a logically required comma can be omitted? Does the same apply in formal writing, or is this a strictly informal punctuation?

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  • I think it's simply an exception to the rule. I think it might have something to do with the flow and rhythm of the language. There is no pause between "no" and "thanks" in speech, because it would probably be quite jabby, so therefore there is no comma in writing, to signify this lack of pause.
    – A. Kvåle
    Commented Jun 14, 2020 at 9:20
  • English is a tonal language and punctuation is an aid to the tonality. In Thanks, but no thanks, "but" has the meaning of "however", the comma is required to distinguish between the intended meaning Thank you for making your offer, but I am declining your offer and the meaning without the comma of "Thank you for making your offer, by which I mean that I do not thank you for your offer, which is rude.
    – Greybeard
    Commented Jun 14, 2020 at 9:41
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    @Greybeard English is not a tonal language, it is stressed time. Tonal languages, as Wikipedia tells me are usually of Asian origin, e.g. Chinese, Thai etc. According to FIS “English is a stress-timed language.† Its intonation patterns, therefore, are different from those of syllable-timed languages like French, Spanish or Hindi.”
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jun 14, 2020 at 10:19
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    Neinstein your Q title asks why there is no comma, but there is a comma. Maybe change the title to "What aren't there two commas in "No, but no thanks."?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jun 14, 2020 at 10:45
  • Not only would it be less felicitous in representing speech with two commas, it would look untidy, even ugly. Punctuation rules are relatively fluid until clarity becomes compromised, and the trend is / trends are towards more minimal punctuation and/or more faithful representation of prosody where clarity demands allow. Commented Jun 14, 2020 at 16:38

2 Answers 2

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It would be rare in contemporary usage to insert the (technically correct) comma into "no thanks" or "no thank you".

The words when spoken have no pause after the "no" and it comes out in one lump "nothankyou".

To render it with the comma sounds either stilted or old-fashioned, or there is an emphasis on the "no" which would perhaps indicate that the offer is in some way inappropriate or particularly unwelcome.

That is, a pause after the "no" suggests that the "thank you" needs to be added as an afterthought, because the offer is so egregious that even thanking the person for it is not an obvious response.

In its extreme, it would work something like this:

"I think I have a [medical problem] in my [private body part]."

"Want me to examine it?"

"NO! Thank you."

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  • Isn't there an unsatisfactory tension between 'rare in contemporary usage' and 'technically correct'? Commented Jun 14, 2020 at 15:03
  • Isn't there just. Commented Jun 14, 2020 at 20:58
  • So what does your 'technically correct' mean? Something that a general 'rule' being employed too draconically would require, even though it contradicts how the English actually works? Sounds to me like the rule needs revising, and 'technically correct' binning. Commented Jun 15, 2020 at 14:03
  • I'm talking about the difference between "grammatically accurate" and "what people actually say". Commented Jun 15, 2020 at 14:49
  • Grammar as the term is required to be used without caveats on ELU doesn't deal with punctuation. And punctuation 'rules' are almost always held to be rules-of-thumb, so 'technically correct' is unhelpful. Acceptability is the criterion, which usually is held to be what most articulate Anglophones actually do (obviously still ill-defined, but at least more honest). Commented Jun 15, 2020 at 18:59
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The OP is right in assuming that, if the comma were to be inserted, then the sentence would be roughly equivalent to 'Thanks, but no, I refuse the offer; thank you once again'. That is, however, not quite what was intended by the original sentence.

The original sentence has the tone of a relatively casual dismissal of whatever was offered. Such a casual dismissal is incompatible with thanking the offeror very profusely, which would be conveyed by 'Thanks . . . thank you once again'.

The key to understanding the original sentence is to note that thanks by itself can sometimes be used to mean 'no, thanks', if it is accompanied by a suitable gesture, or the context otherwise makes it clear that the offer is being rejected. In 'Thanks, but no thanks', the first thanks is such a thanks of rejection. The speaker then, to remove any ambiguity about the rejection, and perhaps to emphasise it, proceeds to say 'but no thanks'. The way to understand the original sentence is thus as something like 'Thanks, and by that I mean "no, thanks"'.

Now, in 'by that I mean "no, thanks"' we still have the comma. In that rephrasing of the original sentence, the quotation marks surrounding the 'no, thanks' make it easy to see that these two words are to be read together, notwithstanding the comma. However, if we were to remove the quotation marks, as was done in the original sentence, and keep the comma, it would appear that no and thanks perform some separate, independent roles in the sentence; it would be difficult to read them together as one building block of that sentence. It is to avoid that difficulty that the comma is omitted in the original sentence, even though, comma would otherwise be included in 'no, thanks'.

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