Note: This post was originally scheduled for 9/10/2013. It didn’t post to MailChimp, so I’m posting it again now. I’ve revised the original post so it’s up to date.
As I write this, I just had an excellent question from an acquaintance in Tucson who wrote that she had bought my Punctuation for Writers a few years ago at a Society of Southwestern Authors (SSA) meeting and had found it useful. However, it had not mentioned how to write a character’s stuttering, stammering speech.
I thought her question laid a great foundation for a blog post. She wrote,
“I am now doing a “down and dirty” edit/proofreading of a work for a friend. The main character stutters, and the way the dialogue is presented is very distracting. … I have been on-line looking for guidance in writing stuttering, but I need a source that I know is legitimate (for lack of a better word) and is one that I can say to the author, ‘Harvey Stanbrough says do it THIS way. He knows what he’s talking about!'”
She’s such a nice lady, isn’t she? 🙂 So anyway, here’s my response, expanded just a bit to provide a little more extensive example:
I r-r-recom-m-mend you wr-write st-st-stuttering like th-this. Just remember to s-spell the entire first sound of the st-stutter before the h-hyphen. (And be careful not to overspell it, by which I mean, don’t spell what you don’t want pronounced.)
After all, s-stutter is not quite the same as st-stutter or stu-stutter, and p-pronounced is not the same as pr-pronounced or pro-pronounced. Read them aloud and you’ll see what I m-mean.
M-most often you’ll w-want to repeat only the f-first letter of a word, or a single conson-n-nant later in the w-word. B-be careful of repeating the f-first l-letter of a w-word like l-letter though because the lower-case L l-looks like a one (1) and c-can be distracting all b-by itself.
However, you’ll w-want to use the first t-two letters of a word like th-though b-because the TH forms a single sound, almost as if TH is a letter b-by itself.
And as with all phonetic and other d-dialect spellings, d-don’t o-o-overd-do it. The g-good p-part about spelling s-stammering is that it’s n-not quite as labor intensive as other t-types of phonetic spelling. Th-those who s-stammer often d-don’t s-stammer on the s-same word or syllable all the t-t-time.
Okay, enough of th-that. When you spell stammering speech, be sure to use the hyphen to indicate the “break.” It isn’t really a break, and it definitely is not a pause (as that created by a comma or em dash, for example).
As I mention in Punctuation for Writers (get it at Smashwords or Amazon) the hyphen is the only mark of punctuation that actually speeds the reader up, making him read two words as if they were one, as in “It was a dark-green Cadillac.”
So we use that speeding-up property of the hyphen to indicate the stutter or stammer by rushing the reader through two individual but repeated sounds as if they were one.
Next time you get m-mega b-bored, write some s-stammering speech for a little while. It b-becomes ad-d-d-dictive.
‘Til next time, happy w-writing!
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