Saturday, May 28, 2011

Speaking Non-words

photo from

The most common piece of advice about writing dialog is:

sound natural, but not too natural.

Omit the hellos, the how are yous, the weather references, and other meaningless bits that are part of everyday conversation. The dialog must move the story along.

Excellent advice.

But there’s an overlooked category that intrigues me. It’s those little noises that communicate a wealth of information.

I call them speaking non-words.

Here’s a list I compiled of common non-words and my own spelling and long-form translation.

Uh-huh Accompanied by head shake. Yes; okay; I agree; I will; I’m following you.

Unh-uh Also spelled nuh-uh. Accompanied by nodding head. No; I don’t agree; I don’t get it; I don’t want to.

Huh? Accompanied by rising voice inflection and puzzled look. Please repeat that because I still don’t get it; I don’t believe you.

Huh Accompanied by small chin lift and facial shrug. You surprise me, but not much.

Meh Accompanied by small shoulder shrug and head tilt. I couldn’t care less; whatever. (Between you and me, I really want to slap the kid who says this!)

Ew! Repeat “w” to indicate extra grossness. What an awful smell/sight/sound/idea/image!

Blech! See eww!

Eh? Favored by some Canadians, “eh” converts a statement into a question; e.g. “You’re going the movies, eh?”

Pfft! I dismiss that irrelevant detail, no matter what you think.

Finally, there’s a special group of non-words that all mean the same thing.

Um, uh, hm, er I’m buying time while I think about your request; I’m trying to remember what I forgot; I'm about to say something you don't want to hear or make a bad pun

Repeat the second letter to extend the thinking time; umm, uhh, hmm. Not on “er”, because then you get a real word “err”. To drag time further, string a few of these I'm-thinking non-words together; e.g. Umm... er... uhh.

For me, non-words are essential to natural-sounding dialog. Like all goods things, alas, they must be used in moderation.

My list is by no means complete. Do have some non-words to add?


Josie said...

I love writing dialogue---too much so, I fear. My characters can go on and on for pages--much like 2 talking heads.

morgan said...

Hi Joan,
See how fast I am to read the blogs! We have a regional expression "yeah-huh or yeah-ha." It means yes, but emphatically yes.

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