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The verb to dither means to hesitate about what to do because you are unable to decide

The verb to hesitate means to be slow to speak or act because you feel uncertain or nervous

The usage of to dither in comparision to to hesitate is very seldom.

Moreover looking up to dither with google search, give this results:

  • sense of weakness
  • not in control of the hesitation
  • pejorative

It seems to me as it is colloquial and informal.

In my understanding, the verb to dither emphasizes the inability to decide, whereas to hesitate just emphasizes a break to think about it.

  1. Is it correct, that to dither is informal and colloquial?

  2. When I want to emphasize the inability, do I use

    • to dither
    • to hesitate

    or another synonym? Which one is the best?

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4 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Dither means to be uncertain or indecisive as a verb and a state of indecision as a noun.

You can understand it more if you look at its probable root/origin. American Heritage dictionary lists its origin as- Alteration of didder, from Middle English didderen, to tremble.

It perhaps explain the occasional usage of dither for to tremble, as with cold

Broadly speaking, Hesitate and dither can be used as synonyms. And dither is not colloquial in the sense that it is perfectly acceptable in both US and UK English.

The usage of to dither in comparision to to hesitate is very seldom.

This could merely be due to hesitate being more widely known than dither to beginners and non-natives.

To emphasize the inability to decide, I would use 'dither' rather than hesitate. You could also use synonyms like : vacillate, waver, linger over.

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As Wikipedia says, there's also the usage in digital audio and video processing, where it's a method of reducing unwanted distortion/artifacts. But in the context of decision-making, I would say dithering implies actively oscillating between alternatives, where hesitating may simply imply taking time to decide because you're not actively considering the alternatives. –  FumbleFingers Jan 15 '12 at 17:23
    
Additionally, hesitating tends to be more momentary, while dithering frequently involves wasting a good deal of time through indecision; thus the command don't dither. –  onomatomaniak Jan 15 '12 at 17:56
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@FumbleFingers I think what you say is important, correct, and should be promoted to an answer. –  slim Jan 16 '12 at 14:55
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I don't disagree with @Serrated Symphony's answer, but here's a bit more detail...

Firstly, as Wikipedia says, there's also the usage in digital audio and video processing, where dithering is a method of reducing unwanted distortion/artifacts (actually, although I've known this usage for years, I didn't understand the how or why until just now - I think it's quite interesting).

In the context of decision-making, I would say dithering implies actively oscillating between alternatives, where hesitating may simply imply taking time to decide because you're not actively considering the alternatives.

Per onomatomaniak's comment, dithering can often be quite protracted, whereas hesitation is normally brief.

Plus of course, there's the extremely common stock phrase I hesitate to ask, which actually is invariably immediately followed by the question with no delay. This one is normally just a cliched way of adding an element of deference to a request.

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The additional usage you cite is interesting. And your answer is more helpful than mine. +1 for u... –  Serrated Symphony Jan 17 '12 at 13:18
    
@Serrated Symphony: You're more than welcome to copy any & all of my answer into yours (which I already upvoted). If it then seems to me there's nothing of significance left out from your "composite", I'll happily delete mine so yours becomes the undisputed "showcase answer". –  FumbleFingers Jan 17 '12 at 13:40
    
LOL... you are kind to suggest that but I really don't see any need/ point of doing that. :) –  Serrated Symphony Jan 18 '12 at 6:09
    
@Serrated Symphony: Two reasons: (1) Your answer is a good one (I just added a few more details) - which implies you may be an "asset" to the ELU community. I don't need the points, so the quicker we get your rep up the better. (2) One good answer is better than two "okay" answers. Anyway, it's your choice - I make this suggestion now & then, and sometimes it's taken up. –  FumbleFingers Jan 18 '12 at 13:55
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yes, I'm glad you see my point and see this platform in the same way I do (well, more or less). So yes, sure we're cool! :) –  Serrated Symphony Jan 19 '12 at 14:24
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My sense is that "dither" means to go back and forth several times, while "hesitate" means either not to do anything or to take one step very slowly. You could be very confident and wise and still choose to hesitate; to dither, you'd have to be nervous or unsure or indecisive.

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I agree. To me, dithering implies trying to decide between two or more alternative courses of action, going and back and forth between them, sometimes thinking A is better than B and other times that B is better than A, while hesitation seems to be asking whether it is wise to embark on a chosen course of action (say A), or do nothing. I dither around trying to decide between A and B, but having chosen A as the better course between A and B, I could either forthrightly do A, or hesitate, wondering if it is better to go ahead do A or to do nothing. –  Dilip Sarwate Jan 18 '12 at 17:29
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There is a difference in connotation I see as missing in the answers so far - I understand "dither" to mean hesitating for no good reason, whereas "hesitate" doesn't carry an implied judgement. If you say "He hesitates before making his decision" I perceive it as neutral, but if you say "He dithers..." it sounds like you think his decision-making skills are less than adequate.

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