Hesitations are a natural part of unscripted spoken language. We all hesitate from time to time while speaking for various reasons: to plan what we want to say next, to correct errors or for dramatic effect. Hesitation is normally apparent in the speech output through repetitions, false starts and pauses (either filled or unfilled).

In the House of Commons, hesitation is just as frequent but sometimes is taken to new levels when MPs seem to hesitate for lengthy periods. A careful examination of the discourse can reveal why this is so. During Prime Minister’s questions (PMQs), when the atmosphere of the house can be quite hostile, the current speaker may hesitate in order to save face and hold the floor. Simply pausing and not saying anything would lead to a loss of face and may encourage more hostility from the opposition benches, and possibly an intervention by The Speaker. By hesitating through false starts, repetitions and filled pauses, the current speaker is able to wait for the hostility to subside while maintaining face and the floor.

Hypothesis: hesitation in the House of Commons, through repetitions, false starts and filled pauses, is a preferred option employed by MPs in order to save face when receiving jeers and hostility from opposition benches.


An example is given below when Ed Miliband (EM), the former leader of the opposition, was debating David Cameron, the Prime Minister, during  PMQs. As he speaks, he receives some hostility from the benches opposite and there is general noise in the chamber. To allow the hostility to subside, the current speaker holds the floor through repetition and false starts:

Chamber: ((cheers and general hostility))
EM: now (.) and isn’t the truth (.)
    and isn’t the truth (.)
    and isn’t the truth (.)
    the deputy prime minister (.)
    the deputy prime minister (.)
    the deputy prime minister (.)
    says says the bid- sh- says says
    the decision should go to the independent adviser (.)

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A second example is taken from Harriet Harman (HH), who was acting as deputy leader of the Labour party at the time. Harman says something which elicits shouts of dismay from the benches opposite. As the noise continues, Harman uses the hesitation tactics to hold the floor and maintain face rather than just simply waiting for the noise to subside.

HH: now I know he doesn’t have to budget
    but many families do
Chamber: ((shouts of dismay))
HH: well it’s the truth (.) it’s the truth (.)
    no (.) it’s the truth (.) it’s the truth (.)
    think (.) think about (.)
HH     ((looks and gestures at backbenches))
    if honourable members would just for a moment
    think about a lone parent working part time (.)

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The third examples comes from David Cameron (DC), as Prime Minister. Cameron in general hesitates less frequently than Miliband or Harman whilst he is speaking from the dispatch box. This may be due to less hostility that he receives from the Labour benches as he is talking but also could indicate a more confident and proficient performer.

In the example below, however, Cameron stirs the ire of the opposition benches with his position on a donation cap. This follows on from an intervention by The Speaker, which indicates the hostility of the house at the time. As shouts of dismay are raised, Cameron holds the floor by hesitating using the phenomena we have seen (i.e. of repetition and false starts) until the noise has subsided to a level where he feels he can continue.

The Speaker:  ((intervention))
DC: there is a problem (.) with a five thousand pound cap
Chamber:  ((shouts of dismay))
DC: and it’s this (.) and it’s this (.) and it’s this (.)
    it would (.) it would imply (.)
    it would imply a massive amount of tax payer support
    for political parties (.)

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Hesitation and holding the floor in this way is perhaps the preferred option for an MP speaking in the House of Commons and other political arenas. Simply saying nothing risk a loss of face and a possible loss of floor when The Speaker intervenes. In fact, in the data that we have analysed during PMQs, most of the space within a speaker’s turn is filled with some sort of utterance. Long silences are very rare.


Repetition: when a speaker simply repeats the previous string of words

DC: and it’s this (.) and it’s this (.) and it’s this (.)

False start: when a speaker starts to say something but then backtracks and reformulates their words.

In the example below, the original utterance is “says the bid” but this is then changed to “says the decision”.

EM: says says the bid- sh-
    says says the decision should go ...

Filled pause: when a speaker fills in the gap between words with a vocal utterance such as ‘um’ or ‘er’.

and she said er she said ...

Abrupt termination: when a speaker starts to say a word but then abruptly terminates the utterance of the word. Signalled with the dash mark ‘-‘ at the end of the word.

LO: says says the bid- sh-