What is Stuttering?

original author: Lisa Mitchell, former student
revised by: Cindy S. Spillers
, web master

Stuttering is a problem with the timing of speech. People who stutter have difficulty moving from one sound to the next in a word, or have difficulty getting sound started after it has stopped. The late Charles Van Riper defined stuttering as "when the forward flow of speech is interrupted by a motorically disrupted sound, syllable, or word, or by the speaker's reactions thereto."

Stuttering is not a problem with producing speech sounds, putting thoughts into words, or retrieving words. Most often the person who stutters knows precisely what s/he wants to say and knows how to say it but can't get the words out smoothly because of involuntary repetitions, prolongations, or blockages in the forward flow of speech. (See Phenomenology or Onset and Development for more information on specific speech behaviors associated with stuttering).

This definition of stuttering helps us to differentiate stuttering dysfluencies from normal dysfluencies. For those of us who do not stutter, we repeat sounds and words when we are trying to finish composing our thought or when we can't quite remember the word that we want to use. Not so with the person who stutters; the person who stutters has the thought together and knows what word to use, but cannot move smoothly from one sound to the next in order to say those words because something has gone temporarily awry with the connection between the brain and the speech muscles.

Abnormal speech behavior constitutes part of the definition of stuttering; the other part of the definition refers to the individual's reactions to her/his disruptions in fluency. The emotional state of the individual who stutters in response to the stuttering often constitutes the most difficult aspect of living with the disorder. People who stutter often experience fear, anxiety, tension, shame, embarrassment, or a combination of these emotions, in response to their stuttering. (See Phenomenology or Effects of stuttering on the individual for more information on emotional aspects of stuttering).


Revised June 2011

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