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I know that people are not the only ones who hesitate, so it isn't personification. But "hesitate" is a word which I would normally associate with sentient beings. So what literary device is "the footsteps hesitated" an example of?

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If we look at the senses three dictionaries list

{AHDEL} hesitate intr.v. ...

  1. To pause or wait in uncertainty: She hesitated for a second before opening the door.

  2. To be slow to act, speak, or decide: "I have for many months hesitated about the propriety of allowing this, or any part of my narrative, to come before the public eye, until after my death" (Thomas De Quincey).

  3. To be reluctant: hesitated to pick up the pan, fearing it was hot.

...........

{Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged, 12th Edition 2014} hesitate vb (intr)

  1. to hold back or be slow in acting; be uncertain

  2. to be unwilling or reluctant (to do something)

  3. to stammer or pause in speaking

..............

{Random House Kernerman Webster's College Dictionary, © 2010} hesitate v.

v.i.

  1. to be reluctant to act because of fear, indecision, or disinclination.

  2. to have scruples or doubts about something.

  3. to stop for a moment; pause.

  4. to stammer.

v.t.

  1. to have scruples or doubts about: He hesitated to break the law.

we see that one of the dictionaries does actually include the sense not requiring a volitional agent (Webster's; sense 3).

This is a broadening of the application of a word. It might be called a transference (the person, not in the first instance the footsteps, hesitate, showing uncertainty, reluctance or whatever) here. I wouldn't say that 'metonymy' or 'synechdoche' really apply here. And it's perhaps too close a connection for 'personification' as usually used. It's not as if we're expected to use our imaginations to consider footsteps as having volition as we are with Lightning McQueen say; it's more like the use of a transferred epithet, 'a contemplative pint'.

The relevant descriptor (I'm not sure whether I should say 'term') in linguistics is 'increase in semantic range' (see Productive lexical processes in present-day English ... Raymond Hickey 9.4).

Aa article I find very relevant, although the source's authority has been queried (though on ideological grounds) is The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979).

Transferred Meaning of a Word

... [T]he [/A] secondary, or derived, meaning of a word, [is] connected with its basic, main meaning by a metonymic or metaphorical relationship or by some associative features. The transferred meaning of a word can arise from spatial, temporal, or logical correspondences in concepts, such as the contiguity of material and product or of process and result....

If one accepts the term 'transference', metonymy, metaphor, or even a looser association is the underlying factor. I'd say that 'a proud day', a quiet drink and 'the footsteps hesitated' are examples involving the looser association.

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  • This is a very detailed and interesting analysis, Edwin! It seems that there is no clear-cut answer to my question, but I agree that this appears to be an example of "increase in semantic range" of the word 'hesitate'. – RAR Aug 7 '16 at 14:52
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I think it is an instance of personification. Here the footsteps (things) behave like a human being:

  • is a figure of speech in which a thing, an idea or an animal is given human attributes. The non-human objects are portrayed in such a way that we feel they have the ability to act like human beings.
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  • I'm confused because non-humans can hesitate too. – RAR Aug 7 '16 at 13:41

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