pause (speech and writing)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Mark Twain pauses
"The right word may be effective," said Mark Twain, "but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.". (Transcendental Graphics /Getty Images)


In phonetics, a pause is a break in speaking; a moment of silence. Adjective: pausal.

In phonetic analysis, a double vertical bar (||) is used to represent a distinct pause. In direct speech (in both fiction and nonfiction), a pause is conventionally indicated in writing by ellipsis points (. . .) or a dash ().

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Examples and Observations:

  • Pauses in Fiction
    "Gwen raised her head and spoke haltingly, fighting back tears. 'He told me Tuesday there was too much damage . . .' She wiped her wet face with her fingers. 'But he wants to send her to a specialist in Memphis.'"
    (John Grisham, A Time to Kill. Wynwood Press, 1989)

    "'Anyone who is guilty of such practices . . .,' he paused for effect, leaning forward and staring at the congregation, ' . . . anyone in town . . .,' he turned and looked behind him, at the monks and nuns in the choir, ' . . . or even in the priory . . .' He turned back. 'I say, anyone guilty of such practices should be shunned.'

    "He paused for effect.

    "'And may God have mercy on their souls.'"
    (Ken Follett, World Without End. Dutton, 2007)
  • Pauses in Drama
    Mick: You still got that leak.
    Aston: Yes.
    It's coming from the roof.
    Mick: From the roof, eh?
    Aston: Yes.
    I'll have to tar it over.
    Mick: You're going to tar it over?
    Aston: Yes.
    Mick: What?
    Aston: The cracks.
    Mick: You'll be tarring over the cracks on the roof.
    Aston: Yes.
    Mick: Think that'll do it?
    Aston: It'll do it, for the time being.
    Mick: Uh.
    (Harold Pinter, The Caretaker. Grove Press, 1961)

    "The pause is a pause because of what has just happened in the minds and guts of the characters. They spring out of the text. They're not formal conveniences or stresses but part of the body of the action."
    (Harold Pinter in Conversations With Pinter by Mel Gussow. Nick Hern Books, 1994)
  • Pauses in Public Speaking
    "If you prefer to read your speech, make sure to pause frequently, take a breath, look up, and scan the audience. . . .

    "Besides allowing you to fill your lungs with air, pausing also allows the audience to absorb the spoken words and create pictures in their own minds. The habit of pausing eliminates the dreaded "um" and "err" and adds emphasis to your last point."
    (Peter L. Miller, Speaking Skills for Every Occasion. Pascal Press, 2003)
  • Pauses in Conversation
    "There are even 'rules' about silence. It has been said that, in a conversation between two English speakers who are not close friends, a silence of longer than four seconds is not allowed (which means that people become embarrassed if nothing is said after that time--they feel obliged to say something, even if it is only a remark about the weather.)"
    (Peter Trudgill, Sociolinguistics: An Introduction to Language and Society, 4th ed. Penguin, 2000)
  • Types and Functions of Pauses
    "A distinction has been drawn between silent pauses and filled pauses (e.g. ah, er), and several functions of pause have been established, e.g. for breathing, to mark grammatical boundaries, and to provide time for the planning of new material. Pauses which have a structural function (juncture pauses) are distinguished from those involved in hesitation (hesitation pauses). Investigations of pausal phenomena have been particularly relevant in relation to developing a theory of speech production. In grammar, the notion of potential pause is sometimes used as a technique for establishing word units in a language--pauses being more likely at word boundaries than within words."
    (David Crystal, Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics, 6th ed. Blackwell, 2008)

    "Systematic pausing . . . performs several functions:
    - marking syntactic boundaries;
    - allowing the speaker time to forward plan;
    - providing semantic focus (a pause after an important word);
    - marking a word or phrase rhetorically (a pause before it);
    - indicating the speaker's willingness to hand over the speech turn to an interlocutor.
    The first two are closely connected. For the speaker, it is efficient to construct forward planning around syntactic or phonological units (the two may not always coincide). For the listener this carries the benefit that syntactic boundaries are often marked."
    (John Field, Psycholinguistics: The Key Concepts. Routledge, 2004)
  • Lengths of Pauses
    "Pausing also gives the speaker time to plan an upcoming utterance (Goldman-Eisler, 1968; Butcher, 1981; Levelt, 1989). Ferreira (1991) showed that speech 'planning-based' pauses are longer before more complex syntactic material, whereas what she terms 'timing-based' pauses (after already spoken material), tend to reflect prosodic structure. There is also a relationship between pause placement, prosodic structure, and syntactic disambiguation across a range of languages (e.g., Price et al., 1991; Jun, 2003). In general, tasks that require greater cognitive load on the speaker or that require them to perfom a more complex task other than reading from a prepared script result in longer pauses . . .. For example, Grosjean and Deschamps (1975) found that pauses are more than twice as long during description tasks (1,320 ms) than during interviews (520 ms) . . .."
    (Janet Fletcher, "The Prosody of Speech: Timing and Rhythm." The Handbook of Phonetic Sciences, 2nd ed., edited by William J. Hardcastle, John Laver, and Fiona E. Gibbon. Blackwell, 2013)
  • The Lighter Side of Pauses: Joke-Telling
    "[A] critical feature in the style of all stand-up comedians is a pause after the delivery of the punch line, during which the audience laughs. The comic usually signals the onset of this critical pause with marked gestures, facial expressions, and altered voice intonation. Jack Benny was known for his minimalist gestures, but they were still discernible, and worked wonderfully. A joke will fail if the comic rushes to his next joke, providing no pause for audience laughter (premature ejokulation)--this is comedy's recognition of the power of the punctuation effect. When the comic continues too soon after delivery of his punch line, he not only discourages, and crowds-out, but neurologically inhibits audience laughter (laftus interruptus). In show-biz jargon, you don't want to 'step on' your punch line."
    (Robert R. Provine, Laughter: A Scientific Investigation. Viking, 2000)