How pauses in dialogue help comprehension

This bit of research has me listening to conversations with a different ear.  I have never considered the use of pauses an active part of human speech - but it is.  Listen to the conversations around you.  Notice how people drop little pauses into their speech - making it a part of their syntax.  Even professional speakers like news broadcasters continually drop little breaks into what they're saying.

According to Kristina Lundholm Fors of the U. of Gothenburg, these little gaps in speech are crucial to comprehension, concluding that utterances containing one-half second pauses are more understandable.

This technique is crucial to actors, whether they do it consciously or not, and is something that any writer in any medium need be aware of.

So how does a writer indicate a pause in a character's dialogue?  Or is it even important that we do?  It's a given that in life people don't speak in complete sentences, and that often a sentence that starts in one direction ends up somewhere completely different.  Yet, as listeners we can follow the train of thought; aided by these short breaks.

It can be argued that commas, semi-colons and dashes aren't grammatical tools as much as ways of indicating a pause in speech.  Grammarians will be jumping up and down about this view of usage, but, how does a writer indicate the natural pauses that occur in natural speech?  Ellipses?  Yes, they work, but to me they indicate a certain type of pause, while a comma indicates another.

I have no answers to this bit of technique.  It is, after all, a matter of personal style as you try to take the voice of a character you hear in your head and put it accurately onto the page.

A final thought:  a good jazz or blues player is often defined not by the notes they play, but by the notes they choose not to play.

Here's the report, with a link to the original report for the University of Gothenburg.
*  *  *  *  *

Pauses can make or break a conversation

Sentences containing a half second pause are significantly
easier to understand than sentences lacking pauses or 
sentences containing an unusually long pause.

Long pauses can make speech difficult to understand, but short pauses can be highly beneficial. This is shown in a new doctoral thesis in linguistics from the University of Gothenburg.

When we speak we don't. Pause. After. Each. Word. Instead we pause between longer utterances ‒ sometimes to breathe, sometimes to think and sometimes to see if somebody else wants to say something. We usually don't even notice the pauses, but if a pause feels a bit too long we start wondering what is going on.

Click on this photo of Jimmy
Stewart for an example of
pauses in his speech - often
satirized by comedians as long
enough to drive a truck through.
Kristina Lundholm Fors has explored what decides whether the duration of a pause in speech is perceived as normal or as uncomfortably long. She finds that we tend to adapt our pauses to our conversation partner -- when the other person uses longer pauses we follow along and do the same thing, and vice versa.

'This way we learn what a normal pause is for the person we are talking to, in that particular conversation,' says Lundholm Fors.

Lundholm Fors used eye tracking to study the processing of sentences with long pauses, sentences containing pauses of typical duration and sentences without pauses. Her results show that sentences with unusually long pauses tend to be more difficult to process. The long pauses in her study were four seconds long.

'Four seconds doesn't sound like a long time, but when you are talking to somebody it can feel like an eternity. A typical pause in speech lasts only about a quarter to half a second.'

How to Write Dialogue
in Fiction

a Teach Yourself Guide

by Irving Weinman

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Powell's Books
So, long pauses can affect communication negatively, but they can also have a positive effect if they are not too long. After the eye tracking study, the test subjects were asked to indicate which sentences they had heard during the experiment. The sentences that contained a half second pause turned out to be significantly easier to understand than sentences that lacked pauses and sentences that contained an unusually long pause.

Pauses are a natural part of speech, and learning more about them can help us understand how the participants in a conversation take turns talking. Lundholm Fors' research shows that pauses in speech are not distributed randomly; instead, the use of them follows a distinct pattern.

'This means that when we talk to other people, we pretty much know when there's going to be a pause, and this is information we can use as we prepare to say something,' she says.

The results of Lundholm Fors' doctoral thesis can contribute to better modelling of pauses in speech -- models that in turn can be used in the development of systems for communication between humans and computers.

'Since the pauses are important for the processing of information, more natural use of pauses in computerised speech can contribute to improved understanding. The pausation models can also be useful in the evaluation of individuals with various disabilities affecting the ability to speak and communicate,' she says.

Related stories:

Story Source:  Materials provided by University of Gothenburg. "Pauses can make or break a conversation."  ScienceDaily, 30 September 2015. 


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