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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 beaks at ever 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?

  • In terms of the terminology, you could call it an "interpolated clause". – Neil Coffey May 15 '12 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 May 15 '12 at 5:58
  • @Neil built-in-example-clause-thingy sounds much better and makes sense to me. – Kris May 15 '12 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. – Neil Coffey May 15 '12 at 6:20
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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'.

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6

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 ...

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  • 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 May 16 '12 at 3:09
0

I would punctuate it thus:

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

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  • 2
    In addition to punctuating would you mind expanding your answer? – macraf Apr 3 '16 at 7:08

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