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I have seen various combinations of interjections (or "grunt words", as they are sometimes called) used in fictional dialogue, such as:

uh huh (which I take for a yes)
uh uh (for no)
nuh uh (also saw that once for no, but I'm not even sure nuh is even a word)

whereas a standalone "huh?" usually means the person doesn't understand something.

Are these commonly associated with the meanings I have assumed (either in American English, or elsewhere)? Are there others I have missed?

Are they really appropriate to use in dialogue? What effect does having them (or not) have?

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This is definitely a borderline question. Asking the meaning of individual words would be more on-topic in English, so I'm guessing that's not the point here. I've edited this a bit to emphasize the aspect of the question asking what effect "grunt words" have on copy. Does this work? –  Neil Fein May 1 '12 at 20:32
With your edits, this question is probably acceptable here, but I think that the OP would be better served by asking at english.stackexchange.com. –  JSBձոգչ May 1 '12 at 20:41
I agree this is borderline. But if you look at it from a creative writing perspective: How does a creative writer use the written word to indicate audible grunts of agreement, disagreement and non-commitment? The OP isn't asking to define a word or phrase, or provide a synonym or simplify a complex thought; he's asking a question of prose. How do I write grunts without ambiguity as to their meaning? Can grunts be written in a way that minimizes ambiguity? If that is, in fact, the question then I feel it is best addressed here. –  Jed Oliver May 1 '12 at 20:57
This is a totally appropriate question, he's asking if it's a good idea for his characters to speak like this, and if so he would like clarification as to the meanings of the words. I get the hesitation in having characters use words like this. With the understanding that he's asking about dialogue, this is definately a good question. –  Nathan C. Tresch May 1 '12 at 23:43
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3 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

People generally speak with "um" and "huh" peppered throughout their speech. Their meaning can be defined in a general sense, but that meaning may not always be consistent, and some of their meaning will be encoded in body language. (Nods, facial expressions, gesticulations, and so on.)

For example, see this definition of "huh":

—used to express surprise, disbelief, or confusion, or as an inquiry inviting affirmative reply

In my experience, it can also indicate agreement (if accompanied by a nod). So that's five possible meanings.

Similarly, "uh huh" means agreement - in a vague sort of way - but it can mean sarcastic agreement or emphatic agreement, and the writer would have to indicate this very well. For example, what does this mean?

"Uh huh", she said, shaking her head.

Of course, context within the text will help. But many writers omit these in dialog, employing them only occasionally for effect. Including them all the time or too often looks odd or makes people look stupid. Making people look stupid will also reflect badly on the writer, since it can come across as a cheap shot.

I won't say to never use them - that'd be silly, users are used to them to a point - but I'd reserve these words for when you want to indicate, um, confusion or indecision in a character who's already been established to the reader.

Indicating body language helps. It makes the reader work harder, but it can be used to good effect. Just don't overuse the technique, like any special effect.

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I hadn't thought of huh as indication agreement, only confusion. I like the idea of including the phrase along with the addition of body language. That really clears up any ambiguity. Also agree they shouldn't be overused. –  tcrosley May 1 '12 at 20:49
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My advice: Try not to use them. Instead, try a more creative solution first.

Maybe something like this:

Paul shambled into the kitchen at around noon on Sunday. The coffee was, thankfully, still warm. "Apartment Fire Kills Seven in Columbus" said the paper that his wife read as she took heavy drags on the first of many afternoon cigarettes.

"That asshole boss of yours making you stay late again, Paul?" questioned Mary as she flicked ashes into her empty cup. Paul grunted affirmatively as he sipped his coffee, black.

Compare that to:

"That asshole boss of yours making you stay late again, Paul?" questioned Mary as she flicked ashes into her empty cup. "Mmm-hmm," said Paul as he sipped his coffee, black.

I think the first sample is more easily read. In the second one, the onomatopoeia of the "Mmm-hmm" gets in the way when reading. Granted, it's not a huge difference; it's just that the first one is a much smoother read.

But sometimes you will really want to or need to use a transcribed grunt. If you want to use them effectively, then there should probably be some ground rules on how to write them in a proper way.

Fortunately there's this article from Nigel Ward at the University of Tokyo entitled "Issues in the Transcription of English Conversational Grunts". (Yes. Really.)

Among many other helpful suggestions and observations it provides the following "Phonetically Accurate Schemes":

Hesitation Sounds: Use "uh" or "ah" for hesitations consisting of a vowel sound, and "um" or "hm" for hesitations with a nasal sound, depending upon which transcription the actual sound is closest to. Use "huh" for aspirated version of the hesitation as in "huh? [other speaker responds] um ok, I see your point."

. . .

Yes/no sounds: Use "uh-huh" or "um-hum" (yes) and "huh-uh" or "hum-um" (no) for anything remotely resembling these sounds of assent or denial"

. . .

Another scheme (Lander, 1996) lists several "miscellaneous words", including: "nuh uh" (no), "mm hmm" (yes), "hmm mmm" (no), "mm mm" (no), "uh huh" (yes), "huh uh" (no), "uh uh" (no)

While this does codify the matter, I think that it minimizes but does not eliminate the possible ambiguity from using "conversational grunts" in writing. I believe that the best thing to do is to creatively avoid using words like uh-huh and huh-uh as much as possible, using them sparingly and only as a last resort. Mmm-kay?

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Interesting article, especially considering it comes from a Japanese university professor. Thanks. –  tcrosley May 1 '12 at 21:50
@tcrosley Actually he's an American with a Ph.D. in comp sci from UC Berkeley and is currently a professor at U Texas, El Paso. He's apparently a leading figure in the field of real-time spoken dialog in human-computer interactions - whatever that means. –  Jed Oliver May 1 '12 at 21:58
Duh (had to throw that in), I didn't notice his name wasn't Japanese –  tcrosley May 1 '12 at 22:52
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Dialogue is the only place that it's appropriate to use informal language like this, in fact, if your character is someone who is generally informal and they are likely to speak like this it would seem incongruous in many cases if a character were to enunciate "Yes" or "no" clearly. Further, as to "nuh" being a word or not, who cares? In America, "nuh uh" is uttered frequently by children and adults who speak like children. Dialogue should reflect the way your character would actually speak, regardless if a prescriptivist would say that those words aren't real. Twain was the first american to write speech the way people actually spoke, it was considered groundbreaking at the time, and even now a great many authors don't do it. Your characters will seem more alive and real if they are seen to speak in the manner of real people, and the personal connection between your reader and your characters will be that much stronger.

Conveying the intention of the words to the reader is easy, as the person being spoken to will hopefully understand the intention, and so their reaction will clue the reader in to what was meant by the grunts. Personally I do my best never to pander to my readers and hit them over the head with explanations of every detail, and instead I rely on clues that allow me to "show them, not tell them." If a person in your book speaks like this often, you can start by spelling out "uh-huh" a few times, and then showing the reaction of the person being spoken to, then you can lead the reader in stages of less and less description, "Joseph grunted in the affirmative," "Joseph nodded yes and grunted his response," "Joseph grunted his usual affirmitive reply".

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