Writing and Pronunciation

By Maeve Maddox

I sometimes hesitate to address the subject of pronunciation because I usually get complaints. For example, I received this gentle admonition when I wrote about the novel pronunciation of the word news among radio announcers:

Methinks a site about writing tips should steer clear of pronunciation.

I have to disagree. Pronunciation has nothing to do with grammar or sentence structure, but it does relate to spelling, and spelling is a significant aspect of writing.

For example, not everyone pronounces vehicle and often with the same speech sounds, a fact that doesn’t matter in conversation, but does matter if the speaker spells often as “offen” or vehicle without the h.

English orthography is often ridiculed for oddities like rough and knight, but it is nevertheless based on a sound system represented by the 26 letters of the alphabet and several additional symbols represented by letter combinations.

Pronunciation may be a matter of personal preference, but correct spelling rarely offers a choice. It is in everyone’s interest to know what sound is represented by each letter or letter combination, even if the sound is not pronounced. It is more useful in a writer to learn the idiosyncrasies of the system.

For example, instead of ridiculing the archaic spelling of knight, an English speaker can choose to learn that in modern English writing, kn is an alternate spelling for the sound /n/, and that igh is an alternate spelling of the long i sound, a “three-letter i.”

Many English words have more than one acceptable pronunciation for the same spelling, but
speakers who do not pronounce all the letters in a word still need to learn “spelling” pronunciations. For example, I used to have trouble spelling the word silhouette, which I pronounce “sil-uh-wet.” I learned that if I think the “spelling” pronunciation “sil-hoo-etty,” I can spell it correctly. If you pronounce the word arctic without the first /k/ sound, you need to think “ark-tik” when you write it so that you won’t leave out the first c.

Each of the following words has at least two pronunciations that are considered acceptable in standard English. I’ll leave it to you to listen to the options at one of the online dictionaries with audio buttons.

arctic
February
calm
palm
salmon
clothes
forehead
comptroller
victuals
waistcoat
medicine
ski

Contrary to what one college textbook irresponsibly suggests, spelling mastery does not require that you be “gifted with a marvellous visual memory.” It does, however, require attention to pronunciation, and a willingness to discard the myth that English spelling is hopelessly chaotic.

If you want to see some really opinionated thoughts on pronunciation, check out Charles Harrington Elster’s The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations.

Click here to get access to 800+ interactive grammar exercises!


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17 Responses to “Writing and Pronunciation”

  • Peter d. Mare (@peterdmare)

    English is prety sound? Research shows that the English spelling system is a mess: 60% of 7000 common words are misspelled in the dictionary (as in inaccurately represented like they sound). The stats would be even worse for the rest of the 160,000 words.

  • Nathalie

    Great article, never thought about it consciously, but I do think pronunciation is indeed important for my writing. First, because I often choose words because they fit in the rhythm of my writing. But also because when writing fiction I write with my ears and make strange spelling mistakes then, that I normally would never make because my eyes would protest.

  • Scott Mellon

    I couldn’t disagree more. “Arctic” for instance is pronounced with two c’s. “Artic” is illiterate. Mentally pronouncing “Wednesday” as “wed/nes/day is a useful mnemonic; just don’t say it out loud.

  • Tony Hearn

    In his article on this very site, Hugh Ashton observes: ”There was also a note about the difference between the use of “alternate” and “alternative” in American and British English – anyone writing for both markets should be very well aware of this distinction – it’s a very important linguistic distinction and is not to be ignored”. Maeve, take note! You have consistently used ‘alternate’ in place of ‘alternative’ throughout.
    But it is not a British/US distinction: it is about keeping the useful distinction between two non-synonymous words.
    Rob Renalda of Quickanddirtytips.com notes:”Now let’s move on and think about the word “alternate”; it’s become commonly used where “alternative” would be a better choice.”
    Grammarist.com: ”As an adjective, alternate means (1) happening in turns, or (2) serving in place of another. Alternative means (1) providing a choice between two or more things, or (2) existing outside the mainstream.”

    Come on Maeve!

  • Androo

    There is a connection between pronunciation and spelling. I’m surprised how often I read (on the photography forums I frequent) people talking about photographing flower ‘pedals’. It’s odd they don’t also get mixed up with ‘medals’ and ‘boddles’ but there it is. Mind you, they are probably also the people who ‘peddle’ their bicycles.

  • Michael C. Cordell (@SoCalVillaGuy)

    Keep preaching on proper pronunciation, as I also believe it goes hand in hand with accurate spelling. If anything, if one knows how to say the word correctly, they’re more like (though not always) able to spell it correctly.

    I’ve peddled as well as pedaled bicycles throughout my life, both of which have given me great pleasure. 😀

  • thebluebird11

    I have already stated my opinion on this subject, specifically at the time of the post to which you (Maeve) referred, so you have only cheers from these quarters. I personally appreciate when the pronunciation of foreign (i.e. non-English) words is given, because I’m a native English speaker, and prefer guidance pronouncing foreign terms. Still, it is true that for the sake of exactness, one could discuss how any given English word is pronounced in the US vs the UK (and other places), plus how it might be pronounced depending WHERE in the US one is from. So while someone from the east coast of the US will say “in-SHOO-rinss,” someone from the Midwest might say “IN-shuh-rinss.” So, one pronunciation size does not fit all.
    However, since this website serves people all over the globe, many of whom do not hold English as their first language, some basic pronunciation guide is helpful, so even if they pronounce it like a New Yorker but then end up in our Midwest, it is better than if they had NO idea how to pronounce it, and maybe walked around saying “IN-soo-rahnss” or something.

  • Rich Wheeler

    I can think of many times when I’ve told people, “It’s spelled just like it sounds.” That doesn’t work for all words, of course. Some words such as the example above, ‘knight,’ retain archaic spellings from a time when their spelling and pronunciation agreed. English became less guttural but retained older spellings to avoid confusing homonyms such as night and knight. (See? There is a reason!)

    In another error I’ve seen lately, people expand contractions incorrectly. For example, “would have” contracts into “would’ve,” but people expand that back out to “would of.”

    I think we should prepare for a storm of challenges to English. On one front, ghetto dialect has infiltrated popular culture. On another front, many of the most influential people think themselves masters of English, with no need to relearn the language, because they grew up in countries formerly ruled by the British. Even from within, native English-speakers undermine it for the sake of “encouraging diversity,” “releasing creativity,” sub-cultural identity, or even apathy.

    The combination of weakening from within and influence from without will significantly affect both English pronunciation and spelling over the next few generations.

  • Dale A. Wood

    People who wish to argue about the use of the word “alternate” clearly do not know about “alternate interior angles” and “alternate exterior angles” in Euclidean geometry. They seem to want to say “alternative interior angles”, from what I read above.
    Two alternate interior angles exist at the same time, and the same goes for alternat exterior angles.
    ———————————————————————–
    In the differences between American English and British English, there is the irksome British way of writing verbs in the present tense when the past tense was called for.
    British people do write things like “John Smith writes…”, when as a matter of fact John Smith is DEAD, hence he is incapable of writing anything anything at all. Thus, “John Smith wrote this, and Churchill wrote that…”
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    The prefix “sub” is not hyphenated onto anything except for “sub-Saharan”. In other words, the second part of the word needs to be a proper noun or a proper adjective. Try to find some others if you wish, but “sub-Saharan” is the only one that I have found. Hence “subcultural”, “subcutaneous”, “submarine”, etc.

    Likewise is true for the prefix “non”. Hence, do not write “non-synonymous”, but rather write “nonsynonymous”, and “nonabelian”, et cetera. In mathematics, the adjectives that are created from people’s names are generally capitalized, just as Jacobian, Newtonian, etc. The lone exception is the adjective “abelian”, which comes from the name of the Norwegian mathematician Niels Hendrik Abel.

    Another example of a “nonhyphenated” word is “nonsynchronous”, though the word “asynchronous” is probably used more often.
    D.A.W.

  • venqax

    Pronunciation may be a matter of personal preference, but correct spelling rarely offers a choice. AAHHHH!!! No, Maeve, say it ain’t so. Pronunciation is no more a matter of personal preference than spelling or grammar are. God save us from dictionaries!

    Many English words have more than one acceptable pronunciation for the same spelling, Not many. Very few. Just like very few have more than one permissible spelling. And even then the differences tend to be between “official” standard dialects. E.g., color/colour. In the English language generally you could say both are acceptable spellings. But in application both are not acceptable. The sole proper spelling in American English is *color*, and *colour* the same (I assume) in British English. It is NOT a matter of personal preference. We are using a standard, common language, not picking songs on a juke box (how’s that for a dated reference).

    If you pronounce the word arctic without the first /k/ sound, you need to think “ark-tik” You don’t just need to think it, you need to SAY it. If you think enough to know how to spell it, then you have the cognitive ability to pronounce the word correctly. Do us all a favor and if you can’t speak properly, then spell it wrong too. If you write Artic as well as say it that way, then we don’t have to actually go to the trouble of meeting you in person and your application/correspondence/plea can be properly “filed” without further investigation. If you know it is spelled arCtic, but you say arTic, then we will think you are 1) too lazy to pronounce things correctly, or 2) are unable to read what is written. Do you want us to think either of those things?

    Each of the following words has at least two pronunciations that are considered acceptable in standard English. I’ll leave it to you to listen to the options at one of the online dictionaries with audio buttons.
    arctic
    February
    calm
    palm
    salmon
    clothes
    forehead
    comptroller
    victuals
    waistcoat
    medicine
    ski

    I am horrified, but can’t help listening to the wreckage. What in God’s name are the “optional” pronunciations for salmon, victuals, medicine and ski? MEED-isin? Medi-SINE? Med-iKIN? skEYE? I can’t even think of another way to say ski. Is it like Egzavier—Es-ki? I have to LAY down, I have a HEED ACKEE.

  • venqax

    @DAWThe prefix “sub” is not hyphenated onto anything except [when] the second part of the word needs to be a proper noun or a proper adjective.

    You are correct, but think what this means. We are picking over proper use of a hyphen– let alone all the en dash vs em dash madness that goes on here– but we are going to shrug our shoulders or say nothing at all when someone has “discovered” an alternative way of pronouncing *medicine*? Or is says artic, or sherbert? Talk about missing the forest for the trees. We talk about “proper use of the semi-colon” but don’t loudly condemn FebYOOary or saLmon? That is simply inexcusable malpractice on the part of the language’s guardians, which is what educated people should consider themselves to be. Jail the jaywalkers and let the robbers go free.

  • Maeve Maddox

    Venqax
    Alas, I’m properly chastened. I guess I’m just not always as strong in my convictions as you are. Sometimes I am swayed by what I read in the OED and in our dear, avuncular Merriam-Webster.

    OED
    arctic: Brit. /ˈɑːktɪk/ , /ˈɑːtɪk/
    In the main entry, the pronunciation without the first /k/ sound is given as a second pronunciation, without any comment. In very fine print in an etymological note, the pronunciation without the first /k/ sound is referred to as “the now nonstandard pronunciation,” the implication being that it was not always nonstandard.

    M-W defends the ar-tik pronunciation in the main entry:

    M-W
    arctic: \ˈärk-tik, ˈär-tik — the pronunciation without the first k is the original one in English (see etymology) and has centuries of oral tradition behind it.

    But, hey, I’ve learned my lesson for now. I don’t plan to write any more posts on pronunciation for a very long time. (Btw, the choice for medicine is between “med-i-sin” and “med-sin.”)

  • Dale A. Wood

    Well, if you need to have a colliption over the pronunciation of the word “salmon”, you need to consider that the word “Salmon” is also a proper noun. The most notable man with that name was Salmon P. Chase: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salmon_P._Chase.
    Chase was the Secretary of the Treasury of the United States during most of the presidency of Abraham Lincoln (specifically 1861 – 64), and then in December 1864, he was appointed by Lincoln as the sixth Chief Justice of the United States – his other nationwide post.
    I don’t have a clue as to how to pronounce Chase’s first name,
    and I don’t care very much, either, or how to say the surname of anyone who might be named Salmon.
    In his other two important political jobs, Chase served as one of the senators from Ohio (earlier) and as the Governor of Ohip (later).

    I know how to say “Rapunzel” and “Rumpelstiltskin”, and that’s good enough for me.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    I think that a good way to help find the pronunciation of “arctic” is to look at its spelling in German: “Arktik”.
    D.A.W.

  • Ian

    Pronunciation is as important as good grammar. It is not about snobbery but about clarity. “Could have” becoming “could’ve” becoming “could of” is a case in point.

    I live in a country that has 11 official languages. The Queens’s English (as pronounced by the BBC of course) used to be some sort of standard, and there are those who still long for those days. But I enjoy the different ways English is pronounced by second-language speakers. It is not the sound that matters but understanding. Unfortunately, the way English is pronounced often suggests that it is little understood.

    Every time we near an election we told by the national broadcaster about “illegible voters”. You must register to vote so that you will be illegible! I have not yet heard of illegible bachelors, but no doubt they will be next.

  • venqax

    DAW: True, Salmon is proper name. It IS pronounced SAL-m’n. It is related to the name Soloman. The fish called a salmon, however, comes from a different source and is so called without the L– SA-m’n. Ever. These are homographs (among other labels)– completely different words that are pronouned differently but happen to be spelled alike. How one is said is irrelevant to the other. This one is an example of a subcategory where a word and proper noun are homographic. E.g., Polish and polish. Other examples include Job who was patient vs. a job you perform for money. The fact that there is a name pronounced JOHB doesn’t mean it’s okay to call your occupation a JOHB. Likewise:

    vigil/Vigil (vee-hill, a common Spanish surname)
    creamer/Creamer (kray-mur, a French surname)
    fries/Fries (freeze– a common German surname)
    model/Model (a surname usually pronounced moh-DELL)

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