Because I am-- shall we say-- "helpful" like that

You know what I love about this blog? Reference mileage. Oh, sure, it may be long, dull, and yellow. It may only have seven regular readers. It may be updated only as frequently as I get oil changes (every 5000 miles with the new car). But when people want to diagram sentences, find out how long Rumpelstiltskin slept*, learn what's further than the moon, or get advice on how to remove foreign objects from their ears, man, they come straight here. Some visitors will stay for up to twenty-four minutes at a stretch, searching, searching. I can only conclude that the dull yellow look implies immediate, direct answers to the questions at hand.** And who am I to withhold pertinent information? I'm feeling magnanimous, and it's nearly time for an oil change.

My stat tools turn up a lot of search hits on grammar and punctuation. Today I found this one:

"shall we say" how to punctuate

Shall we, indeed! Allow me to educate you.†

Now obviously, "shall we say" on its own is actually a question—though you'd have to specify what you're suggesting we say; the question's intent depends on how you end the sentence. Shall we say how to punctuate a sentence? offers a topic for discussion. Shall we say the moon is made of glue and old socks?, on the other hand, is a rhetorical question—used perhaps to illustrate a point, or call attention to a logical inconsistency in someone else's line of argument.

Used within a sentence, however, a phrase like "shall we say" is what they call a parenthetic expression, meaning that it interrupts the train of thought. Parenthetic expressions are sort of asides to the reader: they're used to comment upon the subject of the sentence in some way, or add related information. For example, I might say something like this:
The next time I have to clean that sewage pipe, God forbid, I'll wear the hazard suit.
In that sentence, "God forbid" is my parenthetic expression—an addendum which implies that, actually, I never want to have to clean the sewage pipe again. How I punctuate a sentence like that depends on my intent: do I mean to be humourous? Alarmist? Or am I simply stating a fact?

In the original version of the sentence, we can probably take it as read that I'm merely stating fact: what happened this time, and what will happen next time (though I hope a next time won't come at all). Changing the punctuation around "God forbid" will change the tone of the sentence, however, and thereby its intent. If I punctuate the clause with em dashes, for example, I slow the reader's eye a bit, creating deliberate pauses in the rhythm of the sentence:
The next time I have to clean that sewage pipe—God forbid—I'll wear the hazard suit.
The meaning of the sentence is essentially the same, but there's a definite change in its emphasis: "God forbid" suddenly carries a lot more weight. What happened, or what I'll do in the future, becomes a lot less important than the fact that I never want to have to do it again. It becomes my main point.

Similarly, if I put parentheses around "God forbid," the clause almost slips past the eye, and reads like a mutter:
The next time I have to clean that sewage pipe (God forbid) I'll wear the hazard suit.
Again, my meaning hasn't necessarily changed, but in this case my tone has: "I'll wear a hazard suit" takes on a different flavour with that little hint of a grumble in the preceding clause. There's a sarcasm in the sentence now which wasn't there before; the situation it describes seems a little funnier, too.

In that sense, a parenthetic expression can be useful. Used wisely, such interruptions allow you to do more with a sentence than make statements: they're little rhetorical flourishes by which you can turn and wink at your reader. The question, really, is what you intend.

Which brings us neatly back to the phrase "shall we say"—more precisely, the point of it. Or, to be perfectly blunt, its lack of one. Used as a parenthetic statement, "shall we say" is meaningless. At best it's junk, unnecessary filler to dress up a weak statement. At worst, it's an empty affectation meant to introduce a euphemism and imply, by its tone, disdain for the subject under discussion. To wit:
Everyone knows that your girlfriend is—shall we say—a woman in sensible shoes.

I'm afraid we just aren't satisfied with your level of, shall we say, "experience".
Which isn't to say that you can't ever use "shall we say" as a parenthetic expression. Certainly, you can, any time you like—if you don't mind, shall we say, coming off an absolute prat.

Tone and intent. There's your answer, boyo. What's your intent?

Next time: Who is it that keeps doing Google searches on my name, and what on earth for? It's freaking me out.


*Answer: he didn't. He ate babies. Rip Van Winkle took the 100-year power nap.

**My favourite instance: one visitor searching for "poetry exercises" felt compelled to rate this post "unhelpful" (this was back when I was using the post-rating widget) after two or three pageviews. Well, yes, my disappointed reader, I'll give you that. The post contains no poetry exercises, no matter how many times you hit F5.

†Stand back. I have a degree.