dysfluency (disfluency)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

"Disfluency is utterly normal," says Michael Erard, "and trying to communicate without disfluencies may be more distracting (and hence more damaging to fluency) than it's worth" (Um . . .: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean, 2007). (Roy Scott/Getty Images)


Dysfluency is speech that is not smoothly delivered or grammatically well formed. Also spelled disfluency. Contrast with fluency.

"The distinction between linguistic competence and performance is just as valid for spoken as for written language," says David McKelvie. "The fact that people compensate for disfluencies could be regarded as an ability to filter out performance errors, perhaps using their 'competence' knowledge of language as a way of determining the speaker's (not fully realized) intention" ("The Syntax of Disfluency" in Corpus Linguistics: Readings in a Widening Discipline, 2004).

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

From the Latin, "impaired" + "flow"

Examples and Observations

  • "The term dysfluency is a general term that includes any disturbance in the rhythm or flow of speech. Stuttering is a specific type of dysfluency problem characterized by breakdowns in the movement from sound to sound or syllable to syllable within a word. These two terms are not used interchangeably. In other words, there can be different disorders within which dysfluency may occur in different ways."
    (Anthony J. Caruso and Edythe A. Strand, "Motor Speech Disorders in Children." Clinical Management of Motor Speech Disorders in Children. Thieme, 1999)
  • "I can press when there needs to be pressed; I can hold hands when there needs to be—hold hands."
    (President George W. Bush on the Middle East peace process, January 4, 2008)
  • Dysfluency in Conversations
    "[T]he time pressure on speakers in conversation often results in dysfluencies. In extreme cases, an utterance may become almost grammatically incoherent. For example:
    No. Do you know the erm you know where the erm go over to er go over erm where the fire station is not the one that white white . . .
    Such extreme cases usually occur in extreme circumstances. Here the speaker is trying to explain to members of her family how to reach a local shopping area. Her problems are cognitive as well as syntactic. She is simultaneously building a mental map, visualizing the best route, estimating the hearer's familiarity with the area, and explaining the route."
    (D. Biber at al., Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English. Pearson, 2002)
  • Examples of Dysfluency
    "Among the examples [of dysfluency] are: hesitation phenomena such as repetitions, corrections, and filled pauses; sentence length, slips of the tongue, speech rate, pause length, and length of run (defined as the number of syllables between pauses). In studies by Wiese (1982; 1984), Mohle (1984), and Poulisse (1999), second language users showed more evidence of dysfluency and slower speech than first language users. . . . These observations again are not unique to multilinguals, and are found in children's speech and in adults with language and communication disorders."
    (Joel Walters, Bilingualism: The Sociopragmatic-Psycholinguistic Interface. Routledge, 2005)

  • Dysfluency in Young Children
    "Some degree of dysfluency is common as language skills develop, particularly as the mean length of utterance reaches six to eight words between 3 and 4 years of age. Some children with dysfluency may be relatively fluent for days or weeks at a time, then experience a protracted interval of relative dysfluency. . . . Both stuttering and developmental dysfluency may be influenced by factors such as the complexity of the thought to be expressed and by being rushed or when excited, happy, or angry. Between-word dysfluencies include interjecting 'um' in a sentence, repeating a phrase, or revising the sentence structure in midstream."
    (S.L. Pillsbury and R.B. David, "Developmental Disabilities: Cognitive." Language, Memory, and Cognition in Infancy and Early Childhood, ed. by Janette B. Benson and Marshall M. Haith. Academic Press, 2009)

  • Dysfluency in Adults
    "To the long list of everyday afflictions that includes dry, itchy skin and restless leg syndrome, add another: speech disfluency. Everyone suffers from it. As Michael Erard reckons it in Um [2007], his informal study of verbal stumbles and pratfalls, the average person will commit somewhere between seven and 22 slips of the tongue each day, and from two to four times a day will struggle, for an embarrassing length of time, to find the right word or name. It only gets worse. As the years go by, speech reverts to childhood levels of disfluency, with more pauses, more errors, more repeated words, but even the peak years are not great: up to 8 percent of the average person's word output consists of meaningless fillers and placeholders like, um, uh, and er."
    (William Grimes, "Uh, Lead my Rips: No More Bloopers." The New York Times, August 24, 2007)

    Pronunciation: dis-FLU-en-see