What does the idiom/phrase “but I digress” mean?

You’ve surely heard it before: A person launches into a long-winded explanation of something and finds him- or herself on a tangent before long. To pull back on track, the person likely tosses out the expression “but I digress”. The question is, what exactly does this idiom or phrase mean?

Digressions occur in both speech and written language. It is when a dialogue has been following one topic, but the topic turns – rather suddenly or progressively – to another. This direction, referred to as a “tangent”, may begin to lead the dialogue uncontrollably in a new direction. In order to bring the topic back to its original point and direction, an author or speaker who acknowledges the digression – stating, “but I digress” – is actively attempted to undo the tangency he or she has created.

What’s interesting about digressions is they are usually made out of an innocent error. In conversation, for example, a digression is simply because the conversation took a turn one way and the speaker followed it willingly and possibly subconsciously. Some digressions, however, can be conscious efforts. One example would be if someone is avoiding a particular topic. In order to evade the topic in conversation, he or she could create digressions to redirect the flow of the conversation, thereby avoiding any unwanted discussions. Similarly, when a person digresses in a conversation and doesn’t properly acknowledge it by bringing the conversation back to the main topic, his or her negligence can be considered rude.

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