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Speech hesitations and other exclamations


Graeme

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It is often useful to include some of the way a person speaks in dialogue:

"Er... did you really want to do that?"

"Umm..."

"Ah! Now I understand what you are talking about."

What I'm having trouble with is what each of these ... whatever you want to call them... really mean and when to use which.

This is a grey area because it's not part of the formal language, but more a reflection of how people actually speak. What do people think? What, for example, are the differences between "Er", "Ah" and "Uh"? Do they matter?

A list of these sounds would be useful, too. Here's a partial list (uneditted, so feel free to suggest other spellings) with my guess at when to use them:

Er... A pause because the person is uncertain

Uh... A pause because the person is hesitant. This is close to 'Er' and I'm not sure I appreciate the differences.

Umm... A thinking pause

Hmm... Humming sound

Ah... Exclamation as the light dawns.

Huh... A questioning sound, often accompanied by a puzzled look

Ooo... Appreciative sound... like in "Ooo... that was good!"

Argh... Frustrated sound

Eww... Disgusted sound

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You'll see Brits using "Erm... " a lot. Usually the context is one in which the speaker is somewhat taken aback by something the other person said, perhaps accompanied by a soup?on of embarrassment.

"Nigel, you seemed to be staring at that young man quite a bit."

"Erm..."

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Er... A pause because the person is uncertain

I think this one is more that they are uncertain as to how to phrase the response rather than uncertain about the issue/discussion

Uh... A pause because the person is hesitant. This is close to 'Er' and I'm not sure I appreciate the differences.

I agree it is similar to Er, but for me it is more of an uncertainty about the actual discussion point.

Umm... A thinking pause

Hmm... Humming sound

A regrouping of thoughts after taking in new information.

Ah... Exclamation as the light dawns.

Very similar to Aha

Huh... A questioning sound, often accompanied by a puzzled look

Meaning, "I have no idea what you either said or meant."

Ooo... Appreciative sound... like in "Ooo... that was good!"

Much like Oh

Argh... Frustrated sound

How the heck does this sound? I imagine it is supposed to be like the first part of ARGument.

Eww... Disgusted sound

E U is very similar, although I admit never having seen E U written down.

Yuck

Disgusted sound too

Tsk Tsk

sounds of disapproval

Uh Uh

sounds of parental disapproval meaning STOP NOW

Uh oh

sound on dismayed surprise as something went horribly wrong; much like Oh Oh

phut

exhalation of air signifying derogatory disbelief; distantly related to the current "Shut UP!"

eh

meaningless pause interjected to allow small minds to think of something else to say. Commonly used by Canadians, some Brits. The USA equivalent is 'huh', which sounds much sillier.

Then there is the tongue between the lips and you blow spittle at the person. I have no idea what that's called.

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You're right, Paul. "Argh" sounds like an elongated "R" and is basic sound that doesn't involve the mouth moving.

I've been wondering if part of the difference between "er" and "uh" is accent. I remember reading once that the main difference in accents is the way the vowels are pronounced, and what I think of as "er" may simply be the Australian pronounciation of the American "uh".

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It is often useful to include some of the way a person speaks in dialogue...

Yeah, but only to a point. The reality is if you were to record an actual conversation between two people, and then transcribe every single word, every pause, and every sound, it would be frustrating to read and not necessarily very entertaining. I know: I've done enough interviews to realize that you have to "clean up" speech to a point so that it expresses complete thoughts, without the stumbles, "um's," and other speech problems that people have in real life.

To me, you can only include little asides like this peripherally. The only exception would be if you had a befuddled character -- say, a forgetful college professor -- who had a habit of saying "uh" or "um" a lot. In small doses, I think that can be useful, just to help carve out differences in speaking style between characters.

But I think relying on this kind of thing can be a crutch. At the same time, I think it's not a bad idea to have characters interrupt each other, particularly if they're two people familiar with each other to the point where one can -- occasionally -- finish the other's sentences. That obviously happens in real life, and it's not too irritating to read, as long as it's not done too frequently.

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Most of the time you wouldn't put it in, but there are certainly times where it assists in portraying the emotional state of the character. You don't want to over do it, but it's a simple and effective tool when used well.

For example:

"Did you wash your hands before coming to dinner?"

"Uh..."

This gives an immediate sense of uncertainty, with the probable answer being that the person asked did NOT wash their hands. You could write it so you didn't have to do this, but it would take a lot more words.

My opinion only, of course. This is something I'm currently exploring, so I'm happy to listen to other opinions.

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Another variation of the verbal shrug of indifference is "Meh." Here, though, we're getting close to word formation.

What? I've never heard that in my life, at least in the U.S. over the past fifty years. (I think I've only been speaking for about 49 of those years, but that's close enough.)

"Huh?" I understand. "Um" and "Uh" you hear every day. But "Meh" sounds like something you'd hear in Asia. I used to know a Japanese phrase ending in "meh," but again, it's not something you're gonna hear in English too often.

I think you guys are putting too much emphasis on this. A stammer or a hesitation is something you should only do occasionally, and this is a very, very minor tool. To me, it's more important to concentrate on the meaty issues of character and plot and all that kinda stuff. Whether or not a charter says "um" is trivial, by comparison.

Um... unless you feel differently. :icon13:

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What? I've never heard that in my life, at least in the U.S. over the past fifty years. (I think I've only been speaking for about 49 of those years, but that's close enough.)

Well, I've been speaking for 8 or so years longer than that, but it's only relatively recently that I've heard "meh" enter the language. In fact, I guess I'm something of an early adopter, since I've been using it myself for several years. Where I first picked it up, I don't know. I'm not one to fling around neologisms and jargon just to sound cool or hep (there; I thought I'd throw in a paleologism to lend credence to my profession of advanced age); I started using it because it neatly filled a need. As I enjoy posing as smartass on occasion (though some no doubt would quarrel that it's merely an affectation), I liked the verbal equivalent of an indifferent or dismissive shrug.

The Urban Dictionary makes note of it, and I have seen it in print, including some online fiction. For a close to home example, the boys in Forever on a Tree, listed on The Best of Nifty, are heavy users. For me, at any rate, this aids in establishing the somewhat overly-precocious, smart-alecky nature of their personalities.

But again, I don't think "meh" in this sense fits in the noises-of-hesitation category, as it expresses a specific concept or attitude rather than being a mere pothole in the conversational roadbed.

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"I don't think "meh" in this sense fits in the noises-of-hesitation category"

I don't believe that Graeme was trying to start a specific category like that. I thought it was ALL sounds we make during speech.

I also use "meh" at times, but it is not all that common for me, or those around me.

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From my point of view, I've found that there are times that it's useful for the story to include some of these speech hesitations and exclamations. As The Pecman said, you don't want to do it for all dialogue, but when I want a piece of dialogue to portray a particular tone/meaning, one of these "words" can often do that without requiring excessive narration to go with it.

My most common one is "Er" or "Uh" as it shows the speaker is hesitant. However, some of the other ones are useful at times.

I remember in one of Driver's stories there was the following line:

"?"

When I read it, I understand what it was doing (the speaker was making a sound, asking for clarification on the previous statement), but I thought it looked odd. I wondered if a word to indicate the sound would've been better.

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Guest Gabriel Duncan

pfft

meh . . . is like eh. which is indifferent. or, humurous.

except meh is . . . more lathargic, OR like Cartmen, when he tried to go back in time to see what the Founding Fathers really would do.

my punctuation is horrible.

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