stammering and stuttering

So, I haven't seen The King's Speech, and yes I'd like to and yes I should, but you've got to find me a (orig. AmE) babysitter and (more difficult) a few hours first. Sometimes these days it seems like my cinephile wedding in England's oldest (BrE) cinema/(AmE) movie theater should be annulled on the basis that I haven't been able to keep up with (more current in BrE) the pictures since becoming a parent. In spite of this and in hono(u)r of the popularity and awardiness of The King's Speech, let's talk about stammering and stuttering.

When Ben Zimmer emailed to suggest it as a timely topic, I'd thought I'd done it. But it turns out that instead I'd commented about it on someone else's blog (as has happened before). The nice thing about getting blog suggestions from a seasoned lexicographer like Ben is that he pretty much does the work for me.

So, let's get the big claim out of the way. BrE stammer  = AmE  stutter. When I have said this before, I have been "corrected" by people who insist that they're different. They get their information from people like the novelist David Mitchell,* whose novel Black Swan Green is quoted on the Engine Room blog (the one I had commented at):

Most people think stammering and stuttering are the same but they're as different as diarrhoea and constipation. Stuttering's when you say the first bit of the word but can't stop saying it over and over. St-st-st-stutter. Like that. Stammering's where you get stuck straight after the first bit of the word. Like this. St...AMmer!

I've quoted Alan Cruse on synonymy before, but I'll do it again: "natural languages abhor absolute synonyms just as nature abhors a vacuum". The words stammer and stutter both exist in both dialects, which is confusing for us. And so we look for differences between them in order to justify the existence of two words. But the differences we "find" for these pairs often have little to do with how people actually use the words. What is different in this case is which one is used as a technical term for a habitual speech impediment in the US or UK. The one that plays the role of non-'technical' term in each dialect can be used for non-pathological speech disfluencies.

Ben Zimmer (has) sent a couple of helpful Google Ngrams. These show stammer (blue line) versus stutter (red line) in American English and British English books between 1800 and 2000.

The British English version:

And the American English version:

If it is the case that stammering and stuttering are different things, then it looks like in the 1960s, they found a cure for stammering in America, and somehow that accidentally brought on more stuttering. Of course that's not what happened. What happened is that stutter took over in AmE as the usual term. In BrE, stammer has always been the more common word, but we can see possible Americani{s/z}ation in recent years--or else what has been label(l)ed as 'British English' in Google Books is not all that reliable in the past decade. That wouldn't surprise me. It's easy to see the unreliability of Google Ngrams in searching for dialect-specific instances of the phrases has a stutter and has a stammer. In these cases,  there is less data (or fewer data, if you prefer), and therefore it is more subject to weirdnesses. The BrE Ngram is unsurprising: it shows just has a stammer. The AmE one is wackier:

But if one clicks on the link to the 'American English' Google Books hits for 1983, one finds that some of the instances of the supposedly American cases of has a stammer come from The New Statesman (UK) and India Today.

If, after all this, you don't believe me that these words are dialectal equivalents, then I ask you to believe the British Stammering Association:


"Stammering" is the same as "stuttering". "Stammering" is more often used in the UK and Ireland. "Stuttering" is usual in the United States.

(The US National Stuttering Association seems to be silent on the matter.) 

Thanks again to Ben for the research contributions to this post. This is my third post of the week, although it must be admitted that one of them wasn't a 'real' post. But I'm going to have to count that one in meeting my promise to blog three times this week--as I've received a shockingly (orig. AmE) humongous pile of (BrE) marking/(more usual AmE) grading that must be finished in the next few days. Back next weekend, I hope!

* The comedian David Mitchell was one of the People Who Are Wrong About American English in my Catalyst Club talk this month. He was metaphorically paraded about in metaphorical handcuffs made out of OED pages for his comments on tidbit and herb. Please find me a David Mitchell who hasn't said unsupported things about BrE/AmE differences, before I develop an unhelpful stereotype about those so named.


  1. The novelist David Mitchell's distinction is termed 'part word repetitions' versus 'blocking' in the trade. One of my friends, John Tetnowski, is a leading expert in fluency disorders in the US, and confirms that stammering versus stuttering is not used in academic circles in the Mitchell senses!

  2. A true expert's observation. Thanks, Martin!

  3. I wonder if there is an onomatopoeic aspect to "stutter," which would be missing from "stammer." If so, does the former emphasize symptom over stigma? We are in the realm of shear speculation here, of course.

  4. I use stutter and stammer with the distinction you describe — plus one other. A stammer is always an involuntary affliction. A stutter is when you don't stop saying it over and over again — either because you can't stop, or for some other reason, generally comic.

    Of course, such jokes can be unintentionally, or even intentionally cruel. But frequently they are entirely good natured. The stutter is a device allowing the non-stutter to make wild guesses at what the stuttering speaker means. The humour lies in the contrast between guesses and the final revelation of the intended word. The character of the stutterer is not part of the joke. When I was boy, the comedian Al Reed had a stutter routine every week (or so it seemed) on his radio show.

    Equally good natured are stuttering songs such as The Stuttering Lovers and K-K-K-Katie.

    A slightly different tack in this exchange form Travesties

    BENNET: He did not vouchsafe his business, sir. He left his card.
    CARR: 'Tristan Tsara. Dada Dada Dada.' Did he have a stutter?

    It's not at all necessary for these comic stutters to sound like a genuine affliction.

    Comic stammers are very different. Only a brilliant comic performer can bring it off —Michael Palin in A Fish Called Wanda, Ronnie Barker in Open All Hours. These stammers are realistic imitations of afflictions that would be truly distressing but for the quality of the comic script and acting.

    As you demonstrate, the distinction has no clinical basis. But it's one I recognise in my own speech and expectations of the speech of others.

  5. What you seem to have shown (and what you claimed) is that BrE stammer = AmE stutter.

    But this does not mean that BrE stammer = BrE stutter, and it is possible that some people (like David Mitchell) do maintain that distinction in BrE — after all, as Martin said, there do exist two distinct concepts, 'part word repetition' and 'blocking'. Right?

  6. @displayname
    right, these do indeed exist, along with other characteristics such as cluttering. However, in speech pathology these are all subsumed under stuttering (US) or stammering (UK). It seems some British speakers have assigned the two words to different characteristics of fluency disorders (I had never heard of this distinction and am a British English speaker now in the US).
    @David Crosbie
    Actually, my fluency expert colleagues from Britain tell me that however comic Ronnie Barker's speech was in Open All Hours (and I'm a fan), it wasn't very realistic in terms of being like that of an actual stammerer/stutterer.

  7. @displayname: That was the point I was trying to make with the mention of languages avoiding synonymy--people look for a distinction because different words exist. But the other points I was trying to make (and perhaps was not explicit enough in doing so are): a) these distinctions do not reflect clinical use of the terms (but people often imply that they do--e.g. 'technically, they're not the same'), b) people from another dialect aren't wrong to call stuttering stammering and vice versa.

  8. I work with voice localisation. One of the items I deal with are network locales, a.k.a. call progress tones, or (more incorrectly) dial tones. One of these is affectionately known as the "stutter dial tone"; a tone that is played to the calling party's receiver when there is unheard voice mail waiting.

    Initially I'd say that the tone is a true stutter, the audio properties do reflect a human stutter. However, as a USA-centric term "stutter dial" does not localise very well because in several countries the tone' cadence does not stutter, but stammers instead, i.e. there is a longer pause after the first frequenc(y|ies) before playing the next frequency combination.

  9. Martin J

    What you say is interesting, and I wouldn't dispute it for a moment. Nevertheless, I still see Ronnie Barker's Arkwright as realistic in the sense of 'believable' — giving an illusion of reality. Nobody could say that of The Stuttering Lovers, or of another example I've remembered: Willie Dixon's Nervous.

    PS I forgot to say I'm British speaker. It may also be relevant that I'm senior British speaker.

  10. people look for a distinction because different words exist

    But why do they exist?

    The OED feels the need to justify the recent appearance of stutter:

    The late date of the appearance of the word in English is remarkable; possibly the frequentative formation was suggested by the Dutch form.

    Before that we had stut, of which stutter is the frequentive formation. But even this seems to be an innovation in Middle English, when we already had stammer from Old English.

    OK, there's a reference to cuckoos stammering in the south and stutting in the north. But other quotes — one of them as early as 1500 — use both words in the same phrase.

    It looks as if stut had its meaning transferred in part to be (at the very least) a stylistic variant of stammer. But why?

    I've just been listening to a David Crystal podcast citing stylistic variant sets like kingly, royal, regal. One can see why English welcomed the latter two, and why we assigned distinctions to the differences. But reinterpreting stut seems pretty pointless — unless there was some distinction waiting to be realised by a difference.

    [This is not an attack — just a question to which I can't see an answer, but I hope you might.]

  11. "stutter" has transf. and fig. uses, e.g. of a car engine. "stammer" doesn't -- or at least, not nearly as readily.

  12. I was interested to see the increase in the use of "stutter" in BrE in the 1980s. It reminded me of the 1988 UK novelty hit "stutter rap".

  13. Definitions aside, I think one of the strengths of The King's Speech is that it covers the many overlappings of language: the mechanical, the emotional, the social....

    I loved that movie. No car crashes, no guns, and still got an audience.

  14. You explained that BrE stammer = AmE stutter, but does BrE stutter = AmE stammer? In my AmE dialect stutter can be a verb ("He stuttered over the word") or a noun ("He has a stutter") but stammer is only a verb, it can not be a noun, so "having a stammer" sounds very wrong to me. Is it the same in BrE for stutter?

  15. He has a stammer sound fine to this British speaker. But I'd find it even more familiar to hear He has a terrible stammer.

  16. @Layah: didn't I cover that in the paragraph where I said:

    "The BrE Ngram is unsurprising: it shows just has a stammer."

    (There's a link to the Ngram when you read it in the context of the post.)

  17. A link to some explanation of what a Ngram is and does might be helpful here.

  18. BrE stammer = AmE stutter? But there's local dialects and preferences to take into account. My parents originate from North Midlands UK, and in our family we've always used the word stutter, not stammer, and with no awareness that there was a difference in meaning.

  19. "The US National Stuttering Association seems to be silent on the matter."
    Could it be they couldn't get their words out?

    Sorry, I'll get my coat...

  20. Plain as day! Thanks a lot Dr Lynne Murphy!

  21. Born in London in 1944, I was told I had a stutter, not a stammer. I remember being aware of both words and assuming there had to be a difference between them, but I didn't know what it might be.

    Interestingly, in a 2006 article the author David Mitchell states he became aware of his stammer when he was 7 or 8, and continues to stammer as an adult. I assume he finds it helpful to distinguish between part-word repetition (his stuttering) and blocking (his stammering). If it is useful for him then he is not wrong, but he is overstating the case when claiming that the difference is universally valid.

  22. I live in the Midwest USA. The speech phenomenon known here as "stuttering" is uncommon and the word "stammer" is never used. The most prevalent form of speech dysfunction around here I would say is mumbling. However, when I listen to British radio talk shows, in-studio as well as call-in guests stutter like mad. I find it so frustrating to listen to that I often turn it off. This has led me to ask why do the British stutter so much? There appears to be some denial concerning this.

  23. I suspect those who argue the two words mean different things are likely not Speech – Language Pathologists. I think it’s perfectly fine for them to use different meanings - as long as they realize they’re using the words in a different way than the professionals who actually treat people with this speech disorder.

    As a Speech – Language Pathology grad student in LA, it’s a distinction without a difference. The two words mean the same thing in my field, “Stutter“ is the preferred term in the US — as is “stammer“ in the UK. If I were speaking to a British SLP, who said “stammer,“ and I said “stutter,“ we would understand each other perfectly.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)