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I'm a children's writer and have always used, "W-Who," to a the character being scared. An example would be "W-Who's there?" Someone recently asked if it would be more appropriate to use "Who-Who's there?" For traditional publishing, would both work, or is more appropriate than the other? I did look through 'similar questions,' but nothing pertained to this. Thank you in advance!

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As a very mentally visual writer, dialogue, actions, etc. play out very clearly in my head when I write. Something like a fear induced stutter I then have to figure out how to most accurately translate to the written word, as you seek to do here. Which one of your two choices I would use would be based on how the character actually speaks when visualizing the scene. You ask if you should write "W-Who?" or "Who-who?" In my opinion, these are two slightly different things, so it would depend which one of them the character actually did. Did the character begin the word and stumble over the the first syllable (first example, could also be written "wh-who") or did they manage the the whole word before the break/pause, and then repeat it (second example)?

So you just need to decide which of these two reactions is closer to what your character actually displays. If you are just trying to signal the reader the character is scared, as opposed to having a specific mental picture you are trying to directly convey, then either will do just as well as the other, since both indicate some kind of distraction or emotion that is causing your character to speak with less than complete confidence and clarity.

It is interesting the ways we can change emphasis and emotion on something based on how we format it.

"W-Who are you?" This character is shaken up and they are tripping over their words. Their voice is trembling, might even be breaking.

"Who-Who are you?" The pause here is brief, with the second "who" begun nearly immediately after uttering the first one. This character is stammering.

"Who— Who are you?" This is less emotional and slightly more contemplative. There is a longer hesitation here as the speaker collects their thoughts.

"Who... Who are you?" Another lengthy pause, though the pacing is slower here than that implied by the version with the em dash. This character is drawing out their speech to give them time to think. (Much like the first two examples can be used in similar circumstances and are often used interchangeably, this version could be used interchangeably with the one before it).

"Who are you?" This character's tone is more demanding, the person they are addressing is not just unknown but unknown in a form or circumstance they find especially unusual, hence the emphasis on the latter part of the question.

It's fun to play with these things! If I were you, I'd go with the one that feels right, even if someone else prefers an alternative more, unless they can give you a sensical answer as to why their version is better or they can prove yours is actually somehow "incorrect" (and writers still have been known to bend the rules sometimes for the sake of style, haven't we?).

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Personally I do not like the W-Who construct. The Who-who who's there is not much better. Too many whos for my taste.

A stutter would be better written as wh wh whos there.
Although with the word who it is still a bit awkward.

A possibility would be to drag it out like wh..ooo..s there?

Best for the reader would be for you to just directly say who's there? While describing the fear otherwise.

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  • Maybe. But 'wh...ooo...s' does not look quite right. I agree about the too many whos thing. Though maybe a way to do would be "Who... who's there?" I don't know, there are several ways you could go about it and none of them will satisfy everyone. :) – Tasch Nov 2 '20 at 22:37
  • When you add periods to the word as in "wh..ooo..s", you imply pauses, a word very slowly drawn out, which is far from the stutter the OP seems to be trying to convey. Putting in actual spaces as in "Wh whos" is better, but it creates an inaccurate word separation, rather than the connected/broken up word implied by the hyphen. – MarielS Nov 4 '20 at 21:22
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I was wondering if "W-who's there?" might be better? i.e. it looks slightly unnatural with two capitals at the beginning of the quotation.

But typing that makes me aware of the problem with W-who's there that 'post as a guest' seems to be pointing to - "W" is not pronounced the same as the "Wh" in "Who" !! Maybe "Huh? Who's there?" which probably works better when read aloud.

BTW I totally agree with Mariel - just go with what feels right.

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  • I actually agree with you that the second capital may not be necessary. I think whether to put a capital or not is really a matter of stylistic preference. – MarielS Nov 6 '20 at 1:47
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I think that technically both would be fine, but based on what type of character you are portraying, one would work better than the other. For example, a character that stutters a lot might use w-who, while for a character that is usually pretty confident, I might use who-who's there in order to show just how scared they are. The different phrases could also be used to show the amount of scaredness that the character has. For example, if you have John, who thinks he sees a ghost and is a little scared, you might use 'w-who's there?,' but if John later in the same book sees an army of ghosts and is really scared, he might use 'who-who's there?' So to answer your question, yes, both work, but it is a matter of preference for any given situation in which your character is scared.

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