Proper Pronunciation: A Sound Policy



Pronouncing words correctly helps convince listeners that you know what you’re talking about.

By correct pronunciation, we mean words as you’d hear them enunciated at formal occasions: a lecture by an English scholar, say, or a first-rate production of a play by George Bernard Shaw or Eugene O’Neill.

To settle pronunciation disputes, we recommend an old dictionary. New ones are fine, but having access to an old one minimizes the intrusion of trendy (mis)pronunciations.

Also, those serious about their diction might want to pick up a copy of The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations by Charles Harrington Elster, who says in the book’s introduction: “I am not opposed to change. Such a position would be untenable. I am skeptical of ignorant, pompous, and faddish change. I am annoyed when people invent pronunciations for unfamiliar words. I am exasperated when they can’t be bothered to check the pronunciation of a word they look up in a dictionary.”

Here are ten familiar words whose traditional pronunciations may surprise you. Note: capital letters denote a stressed syllable.

Alleged  It must come as a shock to those in the media, but alleged is a two-syllable word. It is pronounced uh-LEJD, not uh-LEDGE-id.

Envelope  Though you’d never know it from what you hear over the airwaves, the preferred pronunciation of this word is ENN-va-lope, rather than the pseudo-French AHN-va-lope.

Controversial  Four syllables, not five. Say
contra-VER-shul, not contra-VER-see-ul.

Camaraderie  It’s a five-syllable word, but you usually hear only four. That letter a before the r should be a clue to say comma-ROD-ery, not com-RAD-ery.

Forte  When the word refers to a specialty or area of expertise (math is his forte), this is a one-syllable word pronounced fort. Most people mistakenly say for-tay. That pronunciation is only correct as a musical term. When forte is pronounced FOR-tay it means “loudly.”

Short-lived  This is not the lived of She lived well. The is long; short-lived rhymes with thrived.

Schism  It’s pronounced sizzum. The 1968 Random House American College Dictionary lists no alternative pronunciation. You rarely hear this word, but when you do, it’s generally pronounced skizzum, a pronunciation that, in Elster’s words, “arose out of ignorance.”

Integral  Why do so many people say in-tra-gul, despite the spelling? Make it IN-ta-grul.

Homage  A reviewer called a film “a homage to motherhood.” The critic wisely did not write “an homage,” knowing that the h is sounded. This word has spun out of control in the twenty-first century. Its traditional pronunciation is HOMM-ij. But then AHM-ij gained a foothold, and it went downhill from there. Now, just about all one hears is oh-MAHZH, an oh-so-precious pronunciation that was virtually nonexistent in English until late in the twentieth century.

Pronunciation  As the spelling indicates, it’s pronounced pra-nun-see-AY-shun. Too many careless speakers say pra-nown-see-AY-shun.

Most words have been around longer than any of us have. Pronouncing them properly is showing respect for our elders.

Posted on Tuesday, March 24, 2015, at 7:18 am

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14 Comments on Proper Pronunciation: A Sound Policy

14 responses to “Proper Pronunciation: A Sound Policy”

  1. Layne L. says:

    Jewelry is often pronounced Julery

    Realty is often pronounced Relaty.

    They both drive me nuts.

  2. William says:

    In the newsletter you write that the ” preferred pronunciation of this word is ENN-va-lope, rather than the pseudo-French AHN-va-lope.”

    I am a South African, and thus I am used to British English and spelling. I have ever only known the word to be pronounced like the ” pseudo-French AHN-va-lope.” I have an Oxford Dictionary here from 1964 and in it, it gives the reference as ” ĕn’velōpe (or ŏn-),” indicating that AHN-va-lope is quite correct.

    Also, it seems that both may be used depending on preference (http://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/envelope). Further, the online Cambridge dictionary swap the two pronunciations around for British and American English (http://dictionary.cambridge.org/pronunciation/british/envelope).

    The word “forte” also seems to be pronounced differently between the English (fortay) and American (fort) usages (http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/british/forte).

    • Although we are delighted to have readers in many countries, our primary focus is usage in America, where the pronunciations we listed are preferred by discriminating speakers.

  3. Jim F. says:

    Regarding “forte,” there doesn’t seem to be consistent positions among all authorities. For example, see http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/forte, which includes the following statement:

    “In forte we have a word derived from French that in its “strong point” sense has no entirely satisfactory pronunciation. Usage writers have denigrated \ˈfȯr-ˌtā\ and \ˈfȯr-tē\ because they reflect the influence of the Italian-derived forte. Their recommended pronunciation \ˈfȯrt\, however, does not exactly reflect French either: the French would write the word le fort and would pronounce it more similar to English for. So you can take your choice, knowing that someone somewhere will dislike whichever variant you choose. All are standard, however. In British English \ˈfȯ-ˌtā\ and \ˈfȯt\ predominate; \ˈfȯr-ˌtā\ and \fȯr-ˈtā\ are probably the most frequent pronunciations in American English.”

    As far as I can tell, “forte” exists in French primarily as an Italian word in music the same as we have in English. “Fort” exists as a masculine noun in French, but “forte” does not seem to used as a feminine noun in French except as a borrowed word from Italian in which case it would be pronounced as having two syllables. You can google for “n’est pas ma forte” or “n’est pas sa forte” to see that “forte” as a noun does not seem to be used often in French.

    My personal preference is to take the coward’s way and avoid the word except in its music sense since as Webster notes (as above) that “someone somewhere will dislike whichever variant you choose.”

  4. Andrea S. says:

    I just learned that I’ve been mispronouncing some words. Thanks very much!

    I wonder if some day you’d clarify pronunciation of the word nuclear. President Bush seemed to pronounce differently from myself and others I know.

    • We share your concern and frustration regarding this silly pronunciation. However, the word is out on “nook-ya-ler.” We will get around to it eventually, but for now we are more concerned with other words that will surprise a lot of smart readers and careful speakers like you. By the way, we noticed that if you Google “pronouncing nuclear” there are 65 million listings.

  5. Caroline H. says:

    A pet peeve of mine is the word “realtor”. Most people pronounce it real-a-tor!!! There is no letter “a” in between the “l” and “t”.

  6. Brandy K. says:

    This issue is really good – thank you! The pronunciations of a few of those words were great – who know besides you?!

    If you do a pronunciation issue again, please include Poinsettia. I heard on the show A Way With Words that the correct pronunciation would be Poin-sett-a (the last i being silent). However, everyone (including newscasters) seems to pronounce it as though it has four syllables instead of three, and stressing that silent i.

    Thank you very much! I love these newsletters!

    You’re the best!

    • Our dictionaries indicate that both pronunciations are acceptable, though we lean toward pronouncing the i.

      Thank you for your kind words. We’re happy to hear how much you enjoy the newsletters.

  7. Michael says:

    Interesting. I disagree with you about “forte” and”schsim,” and am old enough not to be accused of trendiness. On the other hand, I always say “strong point” rather than “forte,” anyway.

    There’s surprising inconsistency in dictionaries. Which brings me to “diction”: traditionalists would say you misuse it in this post, that it means “choice of words,” not “pronunciation.” Which is why languages with more logical spelling systems than ours can have dicionarios, dizionarii and so on that don’t even indicate pronunciation except in words that behave strangely.

    Cheers

  8. Mort Rumberg says:

    Appreciate (apree-she-ate) the pronounciation tips, but I’m forever wrestling with Wednesday. I’ve always heard it pronounced Wendsday.
    Any clarification?

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