On page 203 of the novel ‘That Hideous Strength’ by C.S. Lewis, an example of a phatic hiatus follows this opening statement:

“The cardinal difficulty in collaboration between the sexes is that women speak a language without nouns.”

The character in the novel clarifies his position by saying the difficulty is not about nouns, but it is by means of nouns. The following example is given, comparing the difference between two men and two women communicating an instruction to get a job done:

Example of two men speaking:

“Put this bowl inside the bigger bowl which you’ll find on the top shelf of the green cupboard.”

Example of two women speaking:

“Put that in the other one there.” “Where?” “In there, of course.”


“There is consequently a phatic hiatus.”

Curious, I looked up the linguistic meaning of phatic, and found this article, part of which says:

In linguistics, a phatic expression is communication which serves to establish or maintain social relationships rather than to impart information. Phatic expressions are a socio-pragmatic function and are used in everyday conversational exchange typically expressed in situational instances that call for social cues. They can include social pleasantries that do not seek or offer information of intrinsic value but can signal willingness to observe conventional local expectations for politeness.

Non-verbal phatic expressions are used in nonverbal communication for emphasis or to add detail to the message that a person conveys or expresses. Common examples of these are smiling, gesturing, waving, etc. According to Dr. Carola Surkamp, professor at University of Cologne, non-verbal phatic communication can be expressed with involuntary physical features such as direction of gaze, blushing, posture, etc. and that these have a vital function in regulating conversation. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phatic_expression#In_fiction

Please be aware I am not trying to analyse this piece of English fiction, or criticise the gentleman and scholar who wrote this example on page 203 of his book, ‘That Hideous Strength’ (1949 edition). Also, as a woman, I have observed that men generally express themselves differently from women, and so I have no difficulty in agreeing with the opening statement and the example given. In fact, it made me laugh.

Question: Is C.S. Lewis’ example misleading given it’s about following instructions to get a job done? If so, what sort of example might be more appropriate?

P.S. If I have failed to use the appropriate tags, please edit accordingly. Thank you.

  • 2
    phatic hiatus seems to be a phrase CS Lewis made up in That Hideous Strength. So he's entitled to use it how he chose.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jul 20, 2022 at 15:14
  • I'd probably call "that", "other one", and "there" examples of anaphora. If you wanted to get fancy you could say "exophora". Commented Jul 20, 2022 at 15:51
  • @StuartF - Ah, a bit like artistic licence when the artist can add to a landscape or move things around in order to create the right atmosphere?
    – Lesley
    Commented Jul 20, 2022 at 17:13
  • 1
    I'd guess CS Lewis meant by phatic hiatus something close to rhetorical pause but we don't have much to judge his meaning by.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jul 20, 2022 at 17:30
  • In the two verbal expressions above, the second can't be understood from the outside (as written) because it lacks accompanying gestures. Maybe that is the gap (hiatus). Commented Jul 20, 2022 at 18:50

2 Answers 2


C.S. Lewis uses phatic hiatus to refer to the pause in speech after "In there, of course." In that sense, it is part of the example of a woman communicating. From the book:

The female for this is, 'Put that in the other one in there.' And then if you ask them, 'in where?' they say, 'in there, of course.' There is consequently a phatic hiatus.

The phatic hiatus is consequent to the answer "In there, of course," meaning the hiatus (or pause in conversation) comes afterward. Phatic would be a highly technical turn of phrase. C. S. Lewis may have been drawing on early linguistic uses of the word phatic, which can be traced to Bronislaw Malinowski's phrase phatic communion (Wikipedia). This phrase was often used at the time to distinguish social speech from speech that conveys information. Here is George C. Barker summarizing the use of that distinction in 1945, the year The Hideous Strength was published (in The social functions of language. ETC: A Review of General Semantics, 2(4), 228–234):

Malinowski has recognized a functional difference between language as a part of action and language as 'phatic communion,' engaged in simply as a social amenity. The term 'phatic communion' is approximately equivalent to Sapir's 'establishment of rapport,' and also is paralled by John Dewey's term 'consummatory,' or language spoken as an end in itself. Like Malinowski, Dewey uses this term in opposition to the active, referential function of language, which he calls 'instrumental.' Hayakawa recognizes a similar distinction with his 'pre- symbolic' and 'symbolic' types of language.

In other words, Lewis likely would have understood phatic as a non-informational or pre-symbolic exchange, something that communicates on a social level rather than a referential one.

In this example, the hiatus is phatic because it conveys some kind of social message in response to not getting the information they need. The question-asker could be conveying dismay, bemusement, or frustration; they could also be deliberately holding one's tongue to maintain social amity in the face of disappointment. It's also possible the woman communicating is thinking something unsaid. Phatic tells us that the hiatus is significant; it leaves to the reader what it signifies.

  • I've learned something new today, for which I thank you. I found this information from the tag nonverbalcue that Lambie left: Nonverbal cues involve the process of sending information without relying on spoken words. Nonverbal cues are useful for many things, including clarifying messages, communicating mood and attitude, and deciphering mixed signals. Examples of nonverbal cues include eye contact, hand gestures and facial expressions. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nonverbal_communication
    – Lesley
    Commented Jul 29, 2022 at 15:54

A little bit of this is preening, but still if you look to the etymological meaning of the neologism or uncommon word of, usually Greek, derivation, a sentiment is expressed that is just slightly different than what could be said in any other way. In this case, I believe the emphasis is on “spoken” ceremonial, versus “gestural” ceremonial exchange. In other words, phatic vs un-phatic, or whatever the opposite is. In that sense, no it’s not misleading, it’s just a little bit cryptic. (Another neologism in that book is “parachronic”.)

The other thing to note is, this isn’t the narrator speaking. The character who Lewis has say this is a Scotsman who serves the role of sceptic. He has a very finely tuned personality. For example, he repeatedly says “veridical” when he means “real” or “truthful”. The etymological interpretation is consistent with the character’s elaborately specific and impregnable usage.

  • Hello, Paul. 'Phatic hiatus' is fairly rare on the internet, not in any dictionary as far as I've discovered, and taken as a free combination rather than a collocation uses 'phatic' in a sense again not covered in most dictionaries. I'd say 'misleading' is fair. 'Communications gap' is the usual term: 'A communication gap refers to a ... Commented Jun 2, 2023 at 11:23
  • situation in which two or more people are unable to effectively communicate with each other. This can happen for a variety of reasons, such as a lack of shared understanding, cultural differences, or language barriers.' [Sage; Quora] Commented Jun 2, 2023 at 11:27
  • I'm not surprised to hear that 'phatic hiatus' is fairly rare on the internet. C.S. Lewis wrote this stuff before the internet had been invented!
    – Lesley
    Commented Jun 2, 2023 at 12:51
  • Astute observations in your final paragraph, Paul.
    – Lesley
    Commented Jun 2, 2023 at 12:57
  • Yes Edwin, communication gap is clearer, but it’s not very literary, and then the reader wouldn’t have to work for it, which is least part of Mr Lewis’ intention. This generation of British writers, and even to today with Anthony Burgess and John Fowles and others, was keen to display their Greek language prowess, even and especially at the expense of intelligibility.
    – Paul K
    Commented Jun 3, 2023 at 14:29

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.