When we speak, there are often small pauses between syntactic units such as sentences. In writing, these pauses are signified by punctuation:

I can come if you want. (without pause)

I can come, if you want. (with brief pause)

I can come. If you want. (with longer pause)

But sometimes we briefly hesitate in the middle of syntactic units, for example, when we hesitate to utter a word that the listener might find objectionable:

This man, this (pause) monster, has done something despicable.

We can italicize such a word, as I have done, to show an emphasis. But that emphasis does not necessarily imply a pause:

This man, this monster, has done something despicable. (emphasis, but no pause)

This man, this...monster...has done something despicable. (pause, but no emphasis)

But the last example shows why using an ellipsis to signify a pause may be confusing. A reader, who does not know what I want to say, may wonder whether I have left out words before and after "monster", or if I mean that the speaker is trailing off twice, creating two longish pauses. The last example may look to a reader more like two broken off sentences instead of one sentence with two pauses:

This man, this... What a monster... He has done something despicable.

A full stop has been better used to create unmistakeable pauses in unconventional places:

I am going to tell you one last time: Go. Home. Now.

But a full stop is too strong a disruption in some cases. Usually, because we lack a specific symbol for a brief hesitation, we describe it:

This man, this -- I briefly hesitate -- this monster, has done something despicable.

But again, this inserted description is not exactly the same as a brief hesitation.

So how can I show a brief hesitation, for example surrounding the word "boy" in the following example?

I was expecting the president to be a middle aged man and then this (hesitation) boy (hesitation) comes in.

I have thought about this problem in my answer to a related question, but that question itself is broader than my current problem and can be easily solved through description.

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    Whats wrong with using a long dash? Its typographically exactly for that purpose, to denote a pause in speech/writing that is longer then the pause from a comma. "This man — this monster — has done something terrible [..]".
    – Polygnome
    Commented Feb 3, 2017 at 13:07
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    @Polygnome I don't read dashes as pauses.
    – user5645
    Commented Feb 3, 2017 at 13:19
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    @Polygnome The M-dashes in your example read to me as a pause just slightly longer than a comma, which is not the effect which @ what is going for, I think. He wants a literal second or two where the character has a micro-reaction. Commented Feb 3, 2017 at 13:30
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    @Polygnome The em dash can be used for many purposes here are some examples. It is considered a pausing point, but it is a side effect of sorts.
    – Lew
    Commented Feb 3, 2017 at 14:09
  • "I can come. If you want. (with longer pause)" mentioned as written examples needs a review. It should be OK in speaking.
    – Ram Pillai
    Commented Aug 21, 2020 at 15:07

8 Answers 8


1) Use the ellispses and emphasis, and tighten up the spaces.

This man, this...monster...has done something despicable.

There's no typesetting reason to have spaces on both sides of those ellipses, particularly since you aren't removing words. Plus you're writing fiction, and the use of ellipses for removed text is only in non-fiction quotes.

2) Add a little narration. Combine with other punctuation to convey the aural effect you want.

If the speaker is trailing off:

"This man, this..." His face twisted in disgust. "this monster has done something despicable."

If the speaker stops sharply:

"This man, this —" He shivered in atavistic fear. " — monster has done something despicable."

The few words of narration cause the reader's internal ear to stop playing dialogue and briefly play narration, which causes a break, if that makes sense. Also, the narration places another small action between the halves of the sentence, and that action happens in the pause you're trying to create.

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    +1 for the second point. In the first point, I'd say the first ellipsis in conjunction with the italics is sufficient, no need for the second: This man, this... monster has done something despicable. If you pause with the ellipsis and emphasise the italicised word, then you would automatically also pause slightly after the word. Commented Feb 3, 2017 at 11:17
  • Thank you, Lauren. In German, my mother tongue and the language I write in, there must be spaces around ellipses (and around dashes, too), and I simply forgot the English convention when I typed my question. I'll edit my question.
    – user5645
    Commented Feb 3, 2017 at 12:37
  • @what In English, there may or may not be spaces around M-dashes; I prefer them. I like to put one space after an ellipsis, but this is not standard practice. Commented Feb 3, 2017 at 13:27
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    I don't like the look of the ellipses with no spaces whatsoever; it looks wrong to me. I would probably spell it "this... monster... has"
    – Muzer
    Commented Feb 3, 2017 at 14:15
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    @aparente001 The rules about spaces and M-dashes is typographical, not writing-related.Your publisher will have its own rules, no matter how your manuscript is set. If you're writing on your own, use them or don't, but be consistent in every instance. Commented Feb 6, 2017 at 10:40

I don't know how others read, but when I saw

This man, this monster, has done something despicable.

I did pause before the word monster. I read, in my head, as I speak, and the need for emphasis requires a pause to get the mouth into the right shape to punch the word out. So, I'd stick with italics in that case.

But in the case

I was expecting the president to be a middle aged man and then this boy comes in.

You're looking at using the pause to indicate surprise, but in this case the fact that the president is a boy is surprise itself. I'd leave the emphasis off and let the word itself do its job.

If you need the pause to indicate a reluctance to utter a certain term, one which the reader, or listeners in the scene, might take exception to, why not em-dashes.

I was expecting the president to be a middle aged man and then this -- doll -- comes in.

though I think these are more than brief pauses.

Not a definitive answer, just my own opinions and usage.

  • +1 for the em-dashes. I had never seen them used quite this way and yeah, it does work nicely. Commented Feb 3, 2017 at 11:18
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    I think the M-dashes are too much here; my eye trips over them. M-dashes are used around interrupters — a grammatical construct — and to use them to indicate pauses doesn't quite work for me. Commented Feb 3, 2017 at 11:31
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    Which illustrates the punctuation is a convention and when you use it for things other than its conventional meaning, people will interpret it in ways you cannot anticipate of control. There is no punctuation mark that means pause and you can't reliably press on into service for that purpose.
    – user16226
    Commented Feb 3, 2017 at 12:55
  • @MarkBaker Well, a comma does mean pause, but it's a light one, not the portentious "space to have a reaction" pause which @ what is trying for. Commented Feb 3, 2017 at 13:28
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    @TonyLinde, but that is a different use for the dash. It is used to indicate that the speaker's sentence structure is fractured. We probably hear pauses at those fracture points, because people do usually pause when they change their sentence structure halfway though. But that is a different case from indicating a pause for emphasis in a sentence whose grammatical structure is intact.
    – user16226
    Commented Feb 3, 2017 at 20:53

I don't know of any well established method for doing this, and after a little searching I've come to suspect that there probably isn't one (though somebody else is free to correct me if I'm wrong).

With this in mind, I think what you need to do is to try to exploit the reactions you expect people to have to the examples you suggested, and play these off against each other. Ultimately, I think, this is what all grammar is about: using the relationship between people's responses to things to convey meaning.

Italics, then, as in "I was expecting the president to be a middle aged man and then this boy comes in", gives the impression that the word is important and that it stands alone, but can also come off as somewhat forceful and confident, and therefore doesn't suggest the hesitation that you're hoping to convey.

Using ellipsis, as in "I was expecting the president to be a middle aged man and then this... boy... comes in" could suggest hesitation, but it can also suggest (as you say) that something has been omitted.

Play them off against each other, however - "I was expecting the president to be a middle aged man and then this... boy... comes in", and these two effects seem to cancel each other out. It no longer looks (to my eye, at least) as if "boy" is part of a larger, truncated phrase, because the italics flag it up as of unique, standalone importance. The ellipsis, in turn, makes it clear that this the speaker didn't stride confidently into the word either. I think this is the effect you're after.


My answer is a variation on my answer to the question you linked to: In prose, you cannot act out dialogue. Prose is recieved by the reader asynchronously. Things that take minutes can sometimes be read in seconds. Things that occur instantly or at the same time may take minutes to describe. Dialogue is not heard as it is spoken, with pauses and changes of pace and emphasis. It is read as prose, which it is.

It is only in very recent works that you find authors frequently trying to act out dialogue through punctuation or elaborate dialogue tags. I suspect it is movie influence. They are imagining who will play their characters in the movie version that will make them rich and they are trying to reproduce in print the way they imagine that actor delivering that line.

But this is not how authors have classically written dialogue. Instead, they have used entirely different devices to change the tone and emphasis of a speech to achieve the effect they want. They have added adjectives to add emphasis or changed word order to make the stress fall where they want it. They have use metaphor and symbol to evoke emotional responses. They have used alliteration and dissonance to emphasis particular ideas or passages.

It is well established that fictional dialogue is not real speech, and that real speech would be as difficult to read as fictional dialogue would be to speak in casual conversation. Movie dialogue is different as well (see Harrison Ford's well known complaints the George Lucas' dialog was impossible to deliver). Real speech on screen would be even more tedious than it is in real life. But movie dialog is not novel dialogue either, because it needs to leave space for the actor to act.

So, my answer is that you don't show hesitation. That you should not use hesitation as a device in dialogue at all -- or only very sparingly if you must -- but that you should recast you dialogue so that the emphasis you wish to create with the pause is created by some other means.

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    While I do think you're right that dialogue in real life, film and written fiction are three different things, I don't think this is sufficient to justify the idea that hesitation (or other artifacts of "realistic" speech) can't sometimes be "acted out" in fiction. I think there are times when it's exactly the right approach. Many writers - and not just modern, populist writers with cinematic ambitions - have done it. Not often, sure, and only where it's really needed, yes, but the question wasn't "Should I regularly do this?", it was "Given that I am doing this, how should I go about it?" Commented Feb 3, 2017 at 12:26
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    If it wasn't my own question, this would be the answer I gave ;-)
    – user5645
    Commented Feb 3, 2017 at 12:41

Having read the answers provided beforehand, I want to add one more example that could be used: Repetition.

This man, this... this monster, has done something despicable.

I was expecting the president to be a middle-aged man and then this... this boy comes in.

Personally, I find it awkward to read if a long pause comes between a noun and its verb/adjectives as naturally, we can relate actions and descriptions with an anchoring noun since you already know that you're describing something If you are able to say what it is.

However this case does work if you want the character to quickly think of a lie that they want to attach to something, e.g. they say an object - realize they need to lie about it and therefore pause, giving a subtle hint about this, or if its part of their characterization.


I certainly like Lauren's answer, among others. But nobody has spoken specifically to dialogue, so I thought I'd add a bit to that.

With narration, I don't like to add pauses in general, but a first-person story would be different, I suppose. With dialogue, you want the reader to read with the same rhythm, if not the same pace, as the way your writer's mind sees it happening in order keep the reader maximally enthralled.

Pauses in conversation can be solved by using a dialogue tag where you want the pause

"Johnny!" Billy hollered, "your ma says you gotta come home!"

"And I was doing the same thing over and over and over again," Bob said, taking a drag off his cigarette, "and I was, like, What's going on?"

"As it turns out," Henry said, "the wind was coming from the east!"

Another option is to use a filler like hmm, uh huh, ,well, and so on.

"We were, you know, happy to see each other, but ..." Marie trailed off. "Eventually we just had to accept reality."

"It's going to be, well, a tough victory, but maybe--just maybe--if we're really lucky..."

Sky said, "This is great, hmm, pasta. It's pasta, right?"


Delays like that are often used in conveying dialog or poetry. I've seen periods used before.

I. Am. The king of texting.

This man, this. What a monster. He has done something despicable.

Italics is used to denote saying the word differently.

"You kissed her?"

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    While the aperiodic periods work in your first example, they don't in the second. That punctuation represents a short, sharp cutoff after each word or phrase, also described as biting off each word. In your second example, the person is stuttering and pausing to think of an appropriate epithet to use. The first example is deliberate pauses for effect; the second is spontaneous pauses because the brain hasn't caught up with the mouth. Commented Feb 8, 2017 at 18:31
  • I. Deserve. An up vote. :) Commented Feb 8, 2017 at 20:31
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    Then write. a. good. answer. ;) Commented Feb 8, 2017 at 22:26

This man—nay, this monster—hurt my children.

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