Pacing | Occurs when speech distributes its tonic accents into regular patterns. Pacing is a rhythmic process that supports a speaker and allows them to clarify what they are saying, to speak longer or more quickly, or to rally another’s backing or enthusiasm.

All speech is structured rhythmically. The most everyday forms of speech are marked by more or less regular accents and syllable onsets. This “more or less” provides us with a starting point in approaching the question of pacing: In which situations does speech pace itself? How does pacing support its speaker? How do we use pacing?

Keeping time

This excerpt of a campaign speech in which Barack Obama shouts out his famous motto “Yes we can” shows us how discourse takes shape by strengthening tonic accents into a regular pattern. It paces itself. This instance of pacing is then taken on by the crowd in its own way: “We want change.”

Indeed, pacing is not an inflexible phenomenon of speech: it fluctuates—and can often be seen as a process. We hear discourse being paced, or trending toward a certain pace, as in this excerpt where an English miner on strike calls for solidarity and justice, this Patti Smith performance, or this message by an unusual American politician (see also We are now the generation of the heart of the fight back).

Conversational pacing

Sometimes pacing happens within the context of interlocution, in the game of alternation that constitutes speaking in turn. In such cases, speakers pace themselves together, as in this pseudo-advertisement by the Fabulous Trobadors, or this excerpt of a Monty Python sketch (see also Les prières dans les langues).

Hammered pacing

Some forms of speech are remarkable for the extreme nature of their pacing, for the extent to which they do not operate by the regular alternation of stressed and unstressed beats, but by accentuating every syllable. This reading by Charles Pennequin offers an example. The paradox of this hammered form of pacing can be stated as follows: although spoken at the most regular possible tempo, it is perhaps the least rhythmic form of speech imaginable.


As we saw with Obama, one of the most obvious effects of pacing is momentum. One can deliberately aim to sweep others away with them, as in this excerpt of Fabrice Luchini reciting a text by La Fontaine (see also Colette Magny in “La Bataille”). Pacing can also sometimes lead to a trance-like effect on the speaker and those around them (see also: Fabienne Tabard, Dedication to the Tackling of the Beast and the Dragon, Santa Cruz).


Pacing most often functions as a way of structuring speech, which it cuts into distinct meaningful units: we can hear this process at work in Dominique de Villepin’s statement just outside of the Clearstream trial. Even more paradigmatic is this excerpt of a documentary extolling the virtues of a method designed to stop stuttering, where the disability is overcome by cutting up an utterance and hammering it into separate syllables.


Pacing can be used to differentiate a message, as in this radio show jingle, or this excerpt of a love message left on someone’s voicemail, where the caller attempts a particularly rhythmic form of pacing (based on the lyrics to a Black Flag song). It can be a big help in reading a long question with limited time during a game, or it can function as a dramatic tool, as in this excerpt from a Fassbinder film.

The aesthetics of pacing

Pacing is ideal for aestheticizing speech, whether in classical recitals, like this one by Maria Casarès, in contemporary poetry readings (see “Ne surtout pas s’endormir”, “We Bomb”), in slam poetry or rap songs (see Double time, I’m that nigger, and Hebs), or in d/node/9401.

Saturation and convincing

Pacing used as a means of saturation is best heard in tightly woven speech that progresses without spacing. This kind of tense rhythm makes interruption and interlocution equally difficult. This statement by lawyer Philippe Bilger gives us a very clear example of the process. It is a strategy used for convincing others. It is therefore not surprising to hear strong forms of pacing in political speech. Chaplin’s satire gives us a striking example of this.


Some forms of speech are paced by an external activity they are indexed to: this is the case with horse racing commentary, auctions, or even when accompanying someone giving birth. In other situations, an invitation to learn something, to strap on a seatbelt, or to practice one’s pronunciation will pace a speaker’s discourse.

Lastly, pacing can function as a way of doing something together, like reciting a poem or being with others for the duration of a protest or religious ritual (see the entry on Chorality).


If only this one is ours

Danez Smith, public reading of his poem Dear White America, 2014.

4 balles 10 francs 10 ans

Scène from the funfair 'Foire du Trône', recording by Daniel Deshays, date unknown.

Cette goutte de sueur qui perle

Interview with storyteller Gabriel Kinsa, excerpt from documentary La voix en quelques éclats, Pierre Boulay and Claire Parnet, 2013.

Après l’échec de monsieur Le Pen

François Asselineau, video posted on the UPR website, May 7, 2017.

Myō hō ren ge kyō

Excerpt from a learning video of "gongyo" by Soka Gakkai International, 2013.

Toute la panoplie d’accessoires

Camelot on the market of Choisy-le-Roi, YouTube, 2015.

Moses supposes

Excerpt from the film Singin’ in the Rain by Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly, 1952. 

Ik vind het niet leuk

Extract from a language course, YouTube, 2010