The Art of Becoming Silent


Why, you little…  Ever felt like you could say more by not finishing your sentence?  Sometimes silence speaks volumes.  There is a word for everything, and that includes the art of not using words – welcome to aposiopesis.

 Enjoy the silence by Könrad

Coming from the Classical Greek, aposiopesis means literally, “becoming silent.” In English, we describe aposiopesis as being “a rhetorical device wherein a sentence is deliberately broken off and left unfinished, the ending to be supplied by the imagination, giving an impression of unwillingness or inability to continue.” (Wikipedia)

One of the strengths of aposiopesis is its capacity to indicate this ‘inability to continue’ through emotional stress.  For this reason, the technique has been written into plays and screenplays aplenty.  When the spoken word is driving a story (as in most plays, television, and films), aposiopesis allows the character a chance to show the internal struggles and heightened emotions ‘winning out’ against his/her self-control.  Audience loves internal struggle, and there are few better ways to vocalise it.

In the same vicinity, aposiopesis is particularly effective in getting an audience hold its collective breath and hang on the edge of its seat.  In pivotal confession scenes, this literary device supplies dramatic ‘false starts’ and comedic ‘gotchas’ to toy with viewers.  In murder mysteries, this can also help to make the audience feel more involved, as they mentally fill in the vocal gaps with the conclusions they’ve drawn and then check these against the accused character’s reaction.

From Virgil to King David to Mark Twain, the greats have employed aposiopesis to greater effect, and you can use it, too.  Common usages include:

  • indicating shyness – “Oh, no, I don’t think…”
  • intimating a threat – “If you don’t stop, I’m gonna…”
  • conveying great difficulty – “I’m not…sure I can hold…”
  • portraying reluctance – “So you want me to just…”
  • exclaiming indignation  – “Well, I never…”
  • dramatic revelation – “It was YOU with the candlestick…”
  • being naughty – “Gurrrrrl, you make me wanna…”

Given that you’re not completing the sentence, it is imperative that the context of your half-statement be very clear.  At best, a misunderstood  aposiopesis can result in blank stares and furrowed brows.  At worst, shyness can be confused with reluctance or threats with playful teasing – and you’ll either miss out on opportunities or create ones you weren’t looking for.

Most of us already use aposiopesis day to day; it’s a device especially common in television and movies.  But now you know what it’s called and where it comes from, and knowledge is power.  Go out into the world, and aposiopese abundantly!

Do you have a favorite story about this device?  What is your favorite way to use aposiopesis?

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Photo credits: Self Portrait As A Stressed-Out Bride by Brittney Bush



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  1. Wade Burch says:

    March 26, 2010 at 2:03 am

    >But? I'm on the edge of my seat, here! Thank you =P

  2. Giovanni Maruri - El Féline says:

    April 4, 2010 at 3:25 am

    >Sometimes our body can tell more than our spoken thoughts. You have the most interesting posts, i´ll try to comment some from now on.

  3. Wade Burch says:

    April 4, 2010 at 7:25 am

    >You're right – in fact, I think our body communicates more than our speech. I'll look up some figures and write on it.

    And thank you very much, Giovanni! I'd love to hear more of your comments.

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