Putting life (and writing) on pause

The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly-timed pause. (Mark Twain)

Mark Twain (the pseudonym of Samuel Clemens, 1835-1910), was a wise and popular humorist, essayist, lecturer and author. He wrote The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and a delightful travel book called The Innocents Abroad. His emphasis above, on a “rightly-timed pause”, literally gives me pause..., time to ponder its significance in writing, poetry, music and life; and in Nepali.

In all languages ‘to pause’ is to stop momentarily to suspend voice or action, time to think something through, or ponder a joke, or get out from under a deep thought or a heavy back load. In Nepali it’s bisraam or bisraanti, meaning ‘rest, ease, repose, peace of mind, relaxation, stop’. Or thaaminu, ‘to come to a halt’. As man thaaminu, it means ‘to be satisfied’, like the old slogan promoting a sip of Coca-Cola® as ‘The pause that refreshes’. Out on the trail your porter may pause - bhaari bisauné - ‘to put down the load’ and take a rest (and sip a coke?).

The world around, when advocates and lawyers defend the innocence of their client in a court of law they may insert a well-timed pause for special effect.

Example: The courtroom was quiet. The jury was alert. Then, after a dramatic pause, the lawyer completed her summation.

Comedians often use a well-timed pause for special effect. A humorist’s pause may have a strong impact on a joke’s effect, even altering its meaning. The next time you watch the famed comedians, Shrestha and Acharya, on Nepali TV, listen for their use of the comical pause.

Script writers sometimes insert a ‘beat’ (in parenthesis), telling the reader where to pause. For example, one of the standard jokes of Victor Borga, the popular Danish-American comedian, is an attempt to explain the function of the three pedals under a grand piano. His script writer inserted a ‘beat’ and two ellipses together:
“The pedal in the middle is there to separate the other
two pedals...(beat)...which could be a problem for those
of you who have three feet.”

A ‘pregnant pause’ is what we sometimes call the brief suspension of voice for special effect. It’s a metaphor quite literally filled with meaning, like an about-to-be-born offspring. A pregnant pause brings the listener to the edge of his seat waiting to hear what comes next...
In prose writing we use an ellipse, those three little dots that sometimes pepper the written page... If used too frequently, you’ll have encountered an ellipsophile - one who suffers from ellipsophilia...
It is also common to mark a significant pause in poetry by inserting parallel lines called a caesura, as in this snippet of a poem by Alexander Pope:
To err is human; || to forgive, divine.
And here, from the first lines of Pope’s ‘An Essay on Man’:
Know then thyself ||, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of Mankind || is Man.

Those ‘double pipes’ or ‘train tracks’, as the caesura is sometimes called, tell you to stop briefly, before completing the line. They’ve been added only to indicate the position of the audible pause; they are not in Pope’s original.

And, not least, there’s the fermata in music — a dot under a wide arch placed over a note, chord or rest, symbolizing a pause, or hold. In this example, it tells the performer to sustain the quarter-note for longer than its normal value, at the performer’s discretion. Sometimes, for more emphasis, the word lunga (short for lunga pause, or ‘long pause’ in Italian) is printed above the fermata symbol.

And now...||...back to Mark Twain for the final word. The pause, he concludes, is -That impressive silence, that eloquent silence, that geometrically progressive silence which often achieves a desired effect where no combination of words howsoever felicitous could accomplish it.

The author may be contacted, after a pause, at don.editor@gmail.com.