How To Pronounce Divisive

By Maeve Maddox

A reader has called my attention to the changing pronunciation of divisive:

I am very active in politics and frequently watch television programs which feature political topics. One of THE most frustrating—and very common— mispronunciations I hear is with the word divisive.  I was taught that it is pronounced with a ‘long i’ on the second syllable—ie: resulting in it having the same, ‘long i’ sound as the word divide.

Many seemingly well-educated and otherwise intelligent people pronounce it with a ‘short i’ sound on the second syllable. I have checked my hard-copy dictionaries, and they all back up my pronunciation of the word. Am I so backward that I missed out on a revolutionary new way to pronounce this word?  If not, why do so many people pronounce it incorrectly?  Do they believe it makes them appear ‘cool’— or part of an exclusive club—or something?!  Do you know when—and why—this trend started?

The reader hasn’t missed any new ruling on how to say divisive. The standard pronunciation is still with a long i in the second syllable: di-VY-siv.

Charles Elster (The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations) devotes two cantankerous pages to the misguided “short-i” divisive, establishing the credentials of the “long-i” pronunciation by citing various dictionaries. He remarks that the first time he noted the nonstandard pronunciation in the context of politics was in 1989 in G. H. W. Bush’s inaugural address. Within fifteen years, “the erroneous pronunciation,” as Elster calls it, had

begun to infect otherwise careful speakers, including Robert Siegel, cohost of NPR’s All Things Considered, who twice said [di-VIH-siv] during an interview that aired on August 30, 2004.

Elster suggests that the short-i pronunciation may have what he labels “the my-pronunciation’s-better-than-yours appeal” for some individuals, but that careful speakers will continue to pronounce the second syllable of divisive with a long i.

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9 Responses to “How To Pronounce Divisive”

  • Esfandiar Lohrasbpour

    I too hear the short i pronunciation of divisive every now and then. In each instance the error is committed by a person who is trying to sound sophisticated. A big part of the ‘sophistication package’ when speaking English is sounding British. Vitamin, with one long i and one short i, becomes Vitamin with two short i’s. The same short i treatment is given to divisive. And a smattering of other words. Before we know it, the long i could end up on the endangered species list.

  • Bill

    Tip of the iceberg, that word. I can’t keep track of how many words are being pronounced differently than when I was taught them. To me, the first “s” in “houses” has a “z” sound and the plural of “life” is “lives” and pronounced that way. Same thing with “self” and “selves,” but I hear many pronounce them with “s,” and “f” sounds. I no longer take NPR rules as a standard. They accept constructions like “There’s a lot of people who …” all the time now from their reporters and hosts. Dictionaries are accepting the pronunciation changes. I guess in time grammarians will accept subject-verb-number agreement.
    P.S. Don’t pronounce the “t” in “often”!

  • Mark Matchen

    Hang on, now. First, shifting pronunciation is not the same as mistaking subject-verb agreement, especially when grammar and meaning are utterly unaffected, as here. Second, although it may lack pedigree, it does have a case. Consider deride/derision. Collide/collision. Arise/arisen. Surmise/surmission. (OK, I made that one up.)

    Granted, only one of these is a verb-adjective pair, and it’s not an “-ive” construction. Does that matter?

    I think this is a case of speakers applying an acceptable practice to new cases where, as I said, meaning is unaffected and only tradition is wounded. This, it seems to me, is unobjectionable language evolution. Not a battle worth fighting.

  • Tom

    Thanks for the conversation concerning the changes we are hearing in pronunciation. I have always thought the reason for the short i was stemming from one of the math processes, long division. The commenter, Bill, has made some accurate observations. Something else I notice in younger speakers is their insistence of trying to bring out both double consonants, creating a baby-sounding speech pattern, i.e., “lit-tul” babies. I think that same effort is heard in words that used to be simply pronounced are now done with much effort, such as “garden becoming gar-dun” and finally, I think a generation or so now have really changed the way contractions are pronounced. An example is “didn’t becoming di-dunt.”

  • thebluebird11

    One way to avoid the aggravation is to stop watching all these TV programs and listening to talk radio! Ahhhh….peace.
    I agree with the above comments but wasn’t even aware of this issue with “divisive” being mispronounced with the short-I sound.
    One of my peeves, as far as what seems to me recent change in pronunciation, is when a word like “groceries” is pronounced “grosheries.” I have heard this same annoyingness with “shtreet” (instead of street). What is up with that?!

  • Roberta B.

    “Divisive” with the short “i” is just as annoying as the expression “short [or long]-lived.” For example, “Due to the disturbance the next day, the peaceful period was short-lived,” (with a long “i”) meaning it had a short life – not “short-lived,” (with a short “i”) which might mean it only existed shortly(?). However, I think the description should be “short [or long]-lifed” at least to make sure the vowel is pronounced properly!

    bluebird, I’m with you on the “groshries.” A few months ago on a popular gardening (gard’ning) site, I listened for 5 minutes to a presentation on growing “shtrawberries.” She must have said it 100 times. I couldn’t get it out of my head!

  • venqax

    All power to those who unYTe behind deVYsive. There is simply no reason at all to suddenly begin mangling this word, the pronunciation of which, as Elster documents, is well established. Never assume that places like NCR or Ivy League (“well educated”) are bastions of good language. “Faddish” and ridiculous pronunciations are more likely to come from those hallowed halls than most anywhere else. It’s like an odd hobby for self-anointed cultural elites to smudge things. Their nests are from where we’ve gotten the now-omnipresent ka-RIB-ean Sea, in place of the perfectly fine kair-i-BEE-an one that had been there for centuries, why Hiro-SHEE-ma suddenly became hi-ROE-shi-ma and the Him-a-LAY-uz became the him-OL-ee-uz out of the blue and for no good reason. They also fed us Mos-KOE, lon-zhur-AY, for-TAY, and other atrocities.

  • thebluebird11

    @Roberta: That shtrawberry thing would drive me crazy. Thank you for letting me know I am not alone with this peeve!
    @venqax: Either pronunciation of Caribbean is OK with me; in fact, I sometimes pronounce it one way, sometimes the other. Also not sure how the Japanese pronounce Hiroshima; I would go by how they pronounce it. There is a new-age jazz band by that name, and they pronounce it hih-RO-shih-muh. Bombay became Mumbai, Peking became Beijing, I guess to more closely approximate how the natives pronounce those words? I don’t know. When in Roma…

  • Anne-Marie

    Am I the only one who sees the humor in the pronunciation of the word divisive causing so much division?

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