English grammar in context
English grammar in context

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3.6 Features of speech: dysfluency

Another of the differences between conversation and writing is sometimes referred to as dysfluency. This is the use of hesitators (sounds such as erm, urn), pauses and repetitions which reflect the difficulty of mental planning at speed. We can see all three of these dysfluencies in the next example.

That's a very good – er very good precaution to take, yes.

(Biber et al., 1999, p. 1053)

There is a pause after good, a hesitator er and repetition of very good. While such dysfluencies might be considered as random occurrences during unplanned speech, analysis of large amounts of conversational data shows that there are systematic patterns in how they are used. Before you read on, consider when you might use a pause as opposed to a hesitator in conversation.

Hesitators are devices for indicating that a speaker has not yet finished their turn, and thus does not want to be interrupted. Hesitators are commonly used at a point when a speaker has not yet finished all they want to say, but they need to give themselves time for forward planning. In contrast, a pause occurs more often at places where a speaker is about to start on a new part of their utterance. They are often followed by words such as okay which signal this new section, as in this example:

Mmm I just thought you know I okay it's only a cheque I know


This transcript does not have pauses marked. However, when I say it in my head I certainly feel that there would be a pause before okay.

Activity 7

Timing: 0 hours 5 minutes

Read the examples below which show uses of repetition. Do you think repetitions function more like hesitators or pauses?

  1. I hope that, uh, Audrey sent in that article to the News Press to, to get back with them

  2. Hopefully he'll, er, he'll see the error of his ways.

(Biber et al., 1999, p. 1055)


The repetition of to and he'll are not at major points in the utterance, rather they are like hesitators, they allow forward planning time and indicate that the speaker has not finished. They can also be used to indicate emphasis.

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