with examples from Wonderfalls, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, NCIS, and Stargate: SG-1
There are few characters continually afflicted with a stutter or stammering speech, but occasionally characters get tongue-tied and writers have to somehow punctuate that speech. So, how do you punctuate a word to show a stutter, or punctuate a sentence for stammering speech?
There are two pieces of punctuation that will be your companions for these particular speech impediments: the hyphen and the comma.
Stu-stu-stutter with the Hyphen
The punctuation you'll use to stutter out a word is the hyphen. After you know that, correctly punctuating for a stutter is as simple as knowing where the word would be stuttered. For the most part this can be felt out naturally by saying the word, but it should be noted that stuttering occurs mostly at the beginning of words, after a phoneme.
Phonemes are the smallest phonetic units in a language that are capable of conveying a distinction in meaning. For example, when you sound out "Buffy" you have 4 phonemes: /b/ /u/ /f/ /E/
The English language has 42* phonemes. You can see these phonemes and examples posted in chart form in English Phonemes, Spellings, Example Words, and Meaningful Names.
*This number does not take into account dialects or regional accents.
In the Wonderfalls episode "Karma Chameleon," guest-of-the-week Bianca's stutter drives the plot, which is concerned with the fact that she can't "get her words out."
Jaye: And why the phony stutter? Some people might think it's offensive and not just funny.
Bianca: It's n-not ph-ph-phony! It becomes more pronounced when I'm under st-st-st-stress!
The word "phony" is a great word to use to examine phonemes. The "ph" in phony creates the same /f/ sound we broke down in "Buffy." Because Bianca is stumbling over the word "phony," you have to hyphenate at the completion of the phoneme, "ph," not just after the "p." If Bianca were stuttering over the "p" and not the "ph" sound, she'd be saying pony.
Buffy's Tara also stutters and, much like Bianca, it becomes more pronounced when she's under stress. When she first meets Willow and the Scooby Gang she stutters quite a bit, but after time it fades, returning only at times of high stress, such as when she's confronted with Oz or her father unexpectedly appears.
Tara: I thought m-m-maybe we could do a spell; make people talk again? I-I'd seen you in the, the group, the wicca group?
Oz: I saw you at Giles' yesterday.
Tara: Yeah, sometimes Willow takes me with her to the S-S-Scoobies.
("New Moon Rising")
Tara: Do what makes you h-h-happy.
("New Moon Rising")
Tara: I d-didn't, I d-didn't kn-know that you were coming.
For a character who doesn't normally stutter, or who can normally control the stutter (like Tara), you may find it unnecessary or nonsensical to punctuate each stuttered word. If you would rather avoid locating phonemes and using so much punctuation, you can use a dialogue tag to convey a stutter.
"I thought you were dead," Tara stuttered.
Whether you choose to punctuate your stutters or call attention to them with a dialogue tag, make sure that it works for your story and doesn't detract from the overall flow.
Some bonus information on stuttering!
When writing a character with a stutter, it doesn't hurt to do a little research about stuttering. I found the following information about stuttering to be useful:
[The severity of stuttering] may also vary in the same individual from day to day and depending on the speaking situation. Saying one’s name and speaking to authority figures may be particularly difficult. For some individuals, fatigue, stress, and time pressure can increase their tendency to stutter. When stutterers feel compelled to hide their stuttering, it generally becomes worse.
Patterns of stuttering behavior also vary. Some individuals try to avoid stuttering by pausing before words, substituting words, and interjecting phrases such as “you know,” “well actually,” “um,” etc., whenever they anticipate a block.
Quoted from the National Stuttering Association
Stammer with the, the, the Comma
A stammer is very similar to a stutter, except a stammer incorporates a complete word. Because of that a stammer is punctuated with a comma, rather than a hyphen; it's how you can tell the difference between:
stutter He was in-in-incapacitated.
stammer He was in, in, in the bathroom.
Here you can see that the hyphen shows that the word is incomplete (and thus a stutter) and that the comma is indicating a complete word.
While a stutter is a neurological and physiological speech impediment, a stammer can simply be brought on by stress and excitement, which means anyone could stammer. Stammers typically center on short words, what I like to think of as "filler" words—words that lie between the big ideas of a sentence and are those places where a character might lose a train of thought for a moment or need a break to map out their sentence. Instead of stopping their speech, a stammerer repeats those "filler" words while they chase down their thoughts to get their words out.
McGee from NCIS typically stammers (and stutters) when nervous and under stress—especially in the early seasons when he's first being acclimated to Gibbs and the demands of being a NCIS agent.
Deputy Secretary of State: Are you in charge of this investigation?
McGee: Uh, a-a-at this moment, uh, here at NCIS headquarters, I am. Agent Gibbs is, is unreachable in the field.
But characters aren't just nervous when they stammer. Stargate: SG-1's Daniel Jackson, while claiming fluency in twenty-three languages, often has trouble getting out his thoughts in English when he's excited or ranting.
Gamekeeper: Now, go: make things right in this place.
Daniel: And how do I, how do I do that?
Gamekeeper: Well, if I told you that it wouldn't be any fun, would it?
Daniel: Fun?! Wha-it, th-th-that's what you think this is for me?
Daniel: You don't, uh, you don't need to walk on eggshells any more. I'm better.
Daniel: Oh, oh what, so what, we sleep together once, then what? We work together. And you know, even saying that part out loud sounds unbelievable. I mean, come on, I mean I can't even imagine what a, what a, what a relationship with you would be like.
Stammers can also include repetition of phrases (how do I, how do I do that?) or hesitation noises such as "uh," "um," and "er." Also, as shown in many of the examples, stutters and stammers can be combined in dialogue. So just because a character doesn't normally stutter, doesn't mean he won't if he starts stammering. Just remember that when you punctuate, use hyphens to b-break apart a stutter and comma to, to, to stammer.