Category Archives: Beastly Mispronunciations

Three pronunciation blunders

1. Substantive is properly pronounced SUB-stant-iv, with the accent on the first syllable, not sub-STANT-iv, with the accent on the second syllable. If you listen, you will hear even well-educated, sophisticated speakers commit this annoying error.

2. Homogeneous consists of five syllables: ho-mo-JEE-nee-us. This is the word we use to describe something composed of parts or elements of the same kind — for example, a homogeneous population. Homogenous (without the e) is also a word, but it has a different meaning and a different pronunciation. It is a biological term that means corresponding in structure because of a common origin. It is pronounced ho-MODGE-uh-nus. It is increasingly common to hear — and see — the word homogenous when the speaker or writer obviously means homogeneous. Perhaps the confusion can be traced to the word homogenize, which means to make homogeneous and which sounds more like homogenous than homogeneous. Is the language evolving so that the distinction between the two words may someday disappear? Maybe. But until then (long after I’m gone, I hope), careful writers and speakers must take care to spell homogeneous with that critical e and pronounce it with the required five syllables.

3. Those who insist on using the French term chaise longue should pronounce it correctly as shays-long, not as shays-lounge. Look at the second word: the u comes after the g, not before the n. Decades of misuse may someday lead to broad acceptance of the boorish shays-lounge, but we should conscientiously object at every opportunity. The best path, of course, is avoid the French term altogether. There’s nothing wrong with lounge chair or even (if you find French terms irresistible) chaise without the longue.

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More pronunciation annoyances

I might as well get a few more off my chest:

  • Divisive is pronounced di-VISE-iv, not di-VISS-iv.
  • Formidable is best pronounced FOR-mid-a-bl, not for-MID-a-bl.
  • Applicable is best pronounced APP-li-ca-bl, not a-PLICK-a-bl.
  • Mischievous is pronounced MISS-cha-viss, not miss-CHEE-vee-us.

You may want to pick a fight with me over formidable or applicable, and I’m prepared to concede that regional differences may account for the proliferation of what I consider inferior pronunciations of those words. But I will yield no ground on divisive or mischievous, the mispronunciations of which I consider simply indefensible.

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Doctrinal

The preferred pronunciation is DOCK-truh-nl (with the accent on dock), not dock-TRY-nl (with the accent on try).

Yes, I know that dock-TRY-nl is the standard British pronunciation, that U.S. academics (especially law-school academics) like to emulate the Brits, and that the British pronunciation is included as an acceptable alternative in many American English dictionaries. But the Brits are notoriously weird (at least to American ears) in their pronunciation habits. Unless you’re willing to adopt their favored pronunciation of urinal as yer-EYE-nl, or of skeletal as skuh-LEE-tl, or of laboratory as la-BOR-a-tree, you should avoid taking their advice on how best to say doctrinal. And unless you want to sound like a pompous academic trying to impress an effete colleague, I recommend that you stick with the standard American pronunciation of words like doctrinal, urinal, skeletal, and laboratory.

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Chromosone; pundints

What is it about the letter n that accounts for its unwelcome intrusion into so many otherwise n-free words or syllables? I have already complained about those who insist on pronouncing Supreme Court as Suprene Court, with an n sound in place of the m. Commenter Laura offered a benign and quite plausible explanation for that particular pronunciation error. But what could possibly explain why so many highly educated individuals, including geneticists and other biological scientists, pronounce chromosome as chromosone? Do they think the word is spelled with an n rather than an m in the final syllable? (Some journalists do. Check out this embarrassing example from the New York Post: “Isabella Santorum, 3, has Trisomy 18, an extra chromosone that causes such symptoms as heart abnormalities, kidney malfunctioning and mental deficiencies.”) Is there something awkward about voicing two m sounds so close together? I have no idea. But when I hear an otherwise brilliant scientist say chromosone, I find the error so irritating that I cannot pay adequate attention to the substance of his or her presentation. I envy those who either do not notice the mistake or can force themselves to ignore it.

Far more annoying than chromosone is the rampant mispronunciation of pundit as pundint. I do not think it’s an exaggeration to say that at least 50% of newscasters and politicians routinely — and unashamedly — commit this felony. I can understand why Sarah Palin would say pundint: she probably thinks the word is spelled that way. But even the great Jim Lehrer, who certainly knows better, is guilty of this detestable crime. Where does that alien n sound come from? Is it a product of confusion with pendant or independent? I’m mystified. I just wish that Lehrer could hear me scream at him each time he says pundint. Maybe that would induce him to take appropriate corrective measures.

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Often

The word is best pronounced off-en, not off-ten. The t is silent. You would not dream of pronouncing soften as soff-ten. Nor would you consider it correct to voice the t in listen, chasten, or fasten. It is a mystery why so many prominent individuals nevertheless habitually say off-ten.

Yes, dictionaries typically include off-ten as an alternate pronunciation. But their mission is predominantly descriptive rather than prescriptive; they report actual usage (if sufficiently widespread) without necessarily endorsing its correctness or desirability. And yes, there may even be historical justification for voicing the silent t in often (though no more so than in soften or fasten or listen). But if you’re inclined to seize on your favorite dictionary, or advert to historical antecedents, to validate your preference for off-ten, just keep in mind what Bryan Garner says (in Modern American Usage): off-en, in his view, is “the educated pronunciation”; only “the less adept say” off-ten.

Unless you want insufferable language elitists like Garner (and me) to consider you “less adept,” stick to the silent t.

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Suprene Court

Why do so many smart, sophisticated Supreme Court journalists and commentators convert the “m” to an “n” in “Supreme”? Listen to Marcia Coyle, for example, when she discusses a Supreme Court argument or decision on the PBS NewsHour. She can’t seem to bring herself to say “Supreme” (with an “m”), as if the correct pronunciation were somehow indelicate. She’s not alone: the National Journal’s Stuart Taylor, one of the best and the brightest Supreme Court reporters, likewise says “Suprene Court.” So do some lawyers who practice before the Court, including a few who clerked for Supreme Court Justices. Is it too much to ask that those who refer to the Supreme Court bring their lips together to form an “m” instead of sloppily voicing it as an “n”?

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Ekcetera

The word is etceterapronounced with a “t” as in jet-settera, NOT with a “k” as in neck-settera. Those who insist on saying ekcetera signal that they are undereducated, ill-read, or lazy.

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