I'm wondering how commas should be placed around the word "say" and the following clause in a sentence like this:

If you have, say, a bucket, that you would like to fill with water, then ...

This is how I speak the sentence, with minor breaks at every comma. But it looks odd in text. I've seen others use punctuation in other seemingly random configurations, including with no commas at all, which looks even worse.

One of the reasons I can't work it out is that the bucket here appears to be acting like the subject, and a separate clause (although one that can't be removed without breaking the sentence).

Is there a "best" choice of punctuation for a sentence like this? And is there a name for this kind of built-in-example-clause-thingy?

  • 1
    In terms of the terminology, you could call it an "interpolated clause". Commented May 15, 2012 at 5:24
  • The problem arises because of too many parentheticals and too much nesting -- you can restructure the sentence or better still, use smaller sentences when writing. Writing takes a bit more work than speech.
    – Kris
    Commented May 15, 2012 at 5:58
  • @Neil built-in-example-clause-thingy sounds much better and makes sense to me.
    – Kris
    Commented May 15, 2012 at 6:01
  • I don't necessarily disagree with that-- I'm just pointing out that this is another term that is sometimes used, obviously for a broader class of cases than just specifically an "example introducer". I also quite like the French term "incise", but it seems to be rarely used in English so I was reluctant to suggest it. Commented May 15, 2012 at 6:20

3 Answers 3


It should be punctuated as in your example, with commas around the 'say'.

They are parenthetical commas, because they perform the same function as putting brackets around 'say' - "If you have (say) a bucket..." They are there to prevent the problem you correctly identified, by indicating that 'bucket' is not the object of 'say'.

  • It's not clear to me that if you need the comma after the "bucket" or not. In the question example there is one, and you say the example there is correct but you don't put a comma after "bucket".
    – fiatjaf
    Commented Sep 29, 2023 at 12:50

As you say, the commas as you have them probably represent how the sentence would be typically spoken, given the convention of a comma representing a sentence-internal pause.

But if you think it looks a bit comma-heavy, then you could use dashes instead of commas to delimit one of the interpolated clauses. For example:

If you have, say, a bucket — that you would like to fill with water — then ...

  • I like dashes, but I don't think it would work as I was imagining the sentence. But now that you point it out, I realise that my example is a bit ambiguous, because it depends what comes after "then" - i.e. whether the next clause is related to filling the bucket with water (dashes won't work), or to the bucket itself (dashes or parentheses would work). Thanks!
    – naught101
    Commented May 16, 2012 at 3:09

I would punctuate it thus:

If you have, say, a bucket that you would like to fill with water, then . . .

  • 3
    In addition to punctuating would you mind expanding your answer?
    – macraf
    Commented Apr 3, 2016 at 7:08
  • Omitting punctuation after 'bucket' makes [a bucket that you would like to fill with water] the exemplar rather than merely [a bucket]. Commented Sep 29, 2023 at 14:35

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