Fred Astaire drew laughs back in the Thirties with his song “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” in which the lovers can’t agree on the pronunciation of words like either, neither, and tomato.
On a personal level, I cringe when I hear someone sound the “t” in often or pronounce pecan with a short “a,” but I have to acknowledge that both these pronunciations are widely accepted alternate pronunciations that can be justified by the spelling.
Alternate pronunciations, however, are a different matter from out-and-out mispronunciations. The latter, no matter how common, are incorrect, either because of the spelling that indicates another pronunciation, or because of what is widely agreed upon to be conventional usage. Word of caution: I’m writing from an American perspective.
Here are 50 frequently mispronounced words. The list is by no means exhaustive, but provides a good start.
1. aegis – The ae in this word is pronounced /ee/. Say EE-JIS/, not /ay-jis/. In mythology the “aegis” is associated especially with the goddess Athene. It is her shield with the Gorgon’s head on it.
2. anyway – The problem with this word is not so much pronunciation as the addition of an unnecessary sound. Don’t add an s to make it “anyways.” The word is ANYWAY.
3. archipelago – Because the word is from Greek, the ch is pronounced with a /k/ sound. Say /AR-KI-PEL-A-GO/, not /arch-i-pel-a-go/.
4. arctic – Note the C after the R. Say /ARK-TIK/, not /ar-tik/.
5. accessory – the first C has a “hard” sound. Say /AK-SESS-OR-Y/, not /ass-ess-or-y/.
6. ask – The S comes before the K. Say /ASK/ not /aks/.
7. asterisk – Notice the second S. Say /AS-TER-ISK/, not /as-ter-ik/.
8. athlete – The word has two syllables, not three. Say /ATH-LETE/, not /ath-uh-lete/.
9. barbed wire– Notice the AR in the first syllable. Say /BARBD/, not /bob/.
10. cache – The word is of French origin, but it does not end with an accented syllable. A cache is a hiding place or something that is being hidden: a cache of supplies; a cache of money; a cache of drugs. Say /KASH/, not /ka-shay/.
11. candidate – Notice the first d. Say /KAN-DI-DATE/, not /kan-i-date/.
12. cavalry – This word refers to troops that fight on horseback. Say /KAV-UL-RY/, not /kal-vuh-ry/. NOTE: Calvary refers the place where Jesus was crucified and IS pronounced /kal-vuh-ry/.)
13. chaos – The spelling ch can represent three different sounds in English: /tch/ as in church, /k/ as in Christmas, and /sh/ as in chef. The first sound is heard in words of English origin and is the most common. The second sound of ch, /k/, is heard in words of Greek origin. The third and least common of the three ch sounds is heard in words adopted from modern French. Chaos is a Greek word. Say /KAY-OS/, not /tchay-os/.
14. clothes – Notice the TH spelling and sound. Say /KLOTHZ/, not /kloz/.
15. daïs – A daïs is a raised platform. The pronunciation fault is to reverse the vowel sounds. The word is often misspelled as well as mispronounced. Say /DAY-IS/ not /dī-is/.
16. dilate – The word has two syllables, not three. Say /DI-LATE/, not /di-a-late/.
17. drowned – This is the past participle form of the verb drown. Notice that there is no D on drown. Don’t add one when using the word in its past form. Say /DROWND/, not /drown-ded/.
18. et cetera – This Latin term is often mispronounced and its abbreviation is frequently misspelled. Say /ET CET-ER-A/, not /ex cet-er-a/. For the abbreviation, write ETC., not ect.
19. February – Just about everyone I know drops the first r in February. The spelling calls for /FEB-ROO-AR-Y/, not /feb-u-ar-y/.
20. foliage – The word has three syllables. Say /FO-LI-UJ/, not /fol-uj/.
21. forte – English has two words spelled this way. One comes from Italian and the other from French. The Italian word, a musical term meaning “loud,” is pronounced with two syllables: /FOR-TAY/. The French word, an adjective meaning “strength” or “strong point,” is pronounced with one syllable: /FORT/.
22. Halloween – The word for the holiday Americans celebrate with such enthusiasm on October 31 derives from “Hallowed Evening,” meaning “evening that has been made holy.” The word “hallow” comes from Old English halig, meaning “holy.” Notice the a in the first syllable and say /HAL-O-WEEN/, not /hol-lo-ween/.
23. height – The word ends in a /T/ sound, not a /TH/ sound. Say /HITE/, not /hith/.
24. heinous – People unfamiliar with the TV show Law and Order: S.V.U. may not know that heinous has two syllables. (The show begins with this sentence: “In the criminal justice system, sexually based offenses are considered especially heinous.”) Say /HAY-NUS/, not /heen-i-us/.
25. hierarchy – The word has four syllables. Say /HI -ER-AR-KY,/ not /hi-ar-ky/.
26. Illinois – As with Arkansas, the final “s” in Illinois is not pronounced. Say /IL-I-NOY/ (and /Ar-kan-saw/, not /il-li-noiz/ or /ar-kan-sas/). NOTE: Some unknowledgeable folks may still be trying to pronounce Arkansas as if it had something to do with Kansas. The pronunciation /ar-kan-zuz/ is waaay off base.
27. interpret – The word has three syllables. Don’t add one! Say /IN-TER-PRET/, not /in-ter-pre-tate/.
28. incident – Something that happens is an “incident.” Don’t say “incidence” when you mean a specific event. There IS a word “incidence,” but it has a different meaning.
29. “irregardless” – See the real word, regardless.
30. jewelry – The word has three syllables. Say /JEW-EL-RY/, not /jew-el-er-y/. The pronunciation /jewl-ry/ is common but not correct, as it removes one syllable from the word.
31. library – Notice where the R comes in the word. Say /LI-BRAR-Y/, not /li-ber-ry/.
32. medieval – The word has four syllables. The first E may be pronounced either short [med] or long [meed]. Say /MED-EE-EEVAL/ or /MEE-DEE-EEVAL/, not /meed-eval/.
33. miniature – The word has four syllables. Say /MIN-I-A-TURE/, not /min-a-ture/.
34. Mischievous – This is the adjective form of mischief whose meaning is “calamity” or “harm.” Mischievous is now associated with harmless fun so that the expression “malicious mischief” has been coined as another term for vandalism. Mischievous has three syllables with the accent on the first syllable: /MIS-CHI-VUS/. Don’t say /mis-chee-vee-us/.
35. niche – The word is from the French and, though many words of French origin have been anglicized in standard usage, this is one that cries out to retain a long “e” sound and a /SH/ sound for the che. Say /NEESH/, not /nitch/.
36. orient – This word has three syllables. As a verb it means to place something in its proper position in relation to something else. It comes from a word meaning “east” and originally meant positioning something in relation to the east. Now it is used with a more general meaning. Say /OR-I-ENT/, not /or-i-en-tate/.
37. old-fashioned – This adjective is formed from a past-participle: “fashioned.” Don’t leave off the ED. Say /OLD-FASHIOND/, not /old-fashion/.
38. picture – There’s a K sound in picture. Don’t confuse picture with pitcher. Say /PIK-TURE/, not /pitch-er/. Pitcher is a different word. A pitcher is a serving vessel with a handle.
39. precipitation – This is a noun that refers to rain or snow, or anything else that normally falls from the sky. As with prescription (below), the prefix is PRE-. Say /PRE-CIP-I-TA-TION/, not /per-cip–i-ta-tion/.
40. prescription – Note the prefix PRE- in this word. Say /PRE-SCRIP-TION/, not /per- scrip-tion/ or /pro-scrip-tion/.
41. preventive – The word has three syllables. A common fault is to add a syllable. Say PRE-VEN-TIVE/, not /pre-ven-ta-tive.
42. pronunciation – This word is a noun. It comes from the verb pronounce, BUT it is not pronounced like the verb. Say /PRO-NUN-CI-A-TION/, not /pro-nounce-i-a-tion/.
43. prostate – This word for a male gland is often mispronounced. There is an adjective prostrate which means to be stretched out facedown on the ground. When speaking of the gland, however, say /PROS-TATE/, not /pros-trate/.
44. Realtor – The word has three syllables. Say /RE-AL-TOR/, not /re-a-la-tor/.
45. regardless – The word has three syllables. Please don’t add an IR to make it into the abomination “irregardless”.
46. sherbet – The word has only one r in it. Say /SHER-BET/ not /sher-bert/.
47. spayed – This is a one-syllable word, the past participle form of the verb to spay, meaning to remove the ovaries from an animal. Like the verb drown (above) the verb spay does not have a D in its infinitive form. Don’t add one to the past participle. Say /SPADE/, not /spay-ded/.
48. ticklish – The word has two syllables. Say /TIK-LISH/, not /tik-i-lish/.
49. tract – Religious evangelists often hand out long printed statements of belief called “tracts.” That’s one kind of “tract.” Houses are built on “tracts.” Then there’s the word “track.” Athletes run on “tracks.” Animals leave “tracks.” Don’t say /TRAKT/ when you mean /TRAK/, and vice-versa.
50. vehicle – Although there is an H in the word, to pronounce it is to sound hicky. Say /VEE-IKL/, not /vee-Hikl/.
51. wintry – Here’s another weather word often mispronounced, even by the weather person. The word has two syllables. Say /WIN-TRY/, not /win-ter-y/.
Got any to add to the list?
1,356 thoughts on “50 Incorrect Pronunciations That You Should Avoid”
An additional mistake for foliage is to pronounce it “foy-lage”. There is no “i” next to that “o”!
Another one I cringe at is “EX-presso” instead of “espresso”. If you can’t say it right, just order “coffee”. 🙂
I have a co-worker who pronounces obese “o-beast”… but that may be filed under a different topic…
I lean toward a descriptivist philosophy of linguistics, and so except in cases where a pronunciation is merely ignorant (e.g. one read a word and used it without figuring out how it’s supposed to be pronounced), I put little stock in such corrections.
When a population pronounces a word in a non-standard way, it may be dialect, or it may be linguistic change in action. Neither is sufficient cause for correction.
This makes bizarre reading for a British person! It got off on the wrong foot with me, because in Britain, no one says “offen” – I’m sorry?! It’s “often” – pronounced “off-tenn.” End of.
And not to sound snobby, but I think most of these are not common among British people. We never use “anyways,” which seems to be common in Canada and the States – similarly we don’t miss out random letters (see “often”) as in “accessory,” “arctic”, “cavalry”, etc. “Asterisk” sometimes becomes “asterix” over here, but that’s the comic book’s fault… and “ask” becoming “aks” annoys the heck out of me too. But this really did point out to me that, for all we might be morons with grammar, we Brits are pretty good with our punctuation!
I grew up in the Mid-west and when I was younger my parents, babysitter, etc. used the word ornery to describe my behavior. However, they dropped the initial “r” so it came out sounding like /ON-REE/ (2 syllables instead of 3). I thought it was an entirely different word and didn’t figure out they were just butchering it the whole time.
Also people in the Mid-west like to say /MELK/ instead of milk. Gah!
what about: it ain’t no something
is that correct?
I agree wholly with all of the above, but just wanted to point out that “forte” in Italian does also mean “strong”. It is used as a musical term, and is mostly interpreted to mean “Loud”, in a relative way, but it really means that the player should convey a strong sound.
I notice this in Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale” at line 3147:
Yow loveres axe I now this questioun:
While it may betray a lack of education today, the pronunciation of “ask” as “aks” seems to have a long history.
BTW: The story also uses “aske” for first person singular in another spot. I don’t know why Chaucer switches back and forth.
Oh, one of the worst: “nuclear” – not nuc-u-lar.
True, but you Brits need work on your Rs. You add them to the end of words that don’t end with one, like drama, and you ignore them in words that do, like mother. And I’m tired of you Brits calling me Robet!
“Ask” is not the only word in which letters and sounds have switched positions over time. “Girl” used to be “gril” and “whale” was “hwale.”
Disclaimer: I didn’t put the word “dumb” in the headline. I don’t equate “uneducated” with “dumb.” And I don’t equate the quest for a standard pronunciation with “elitism.” With so many people from so many backgrounds communicating in English, a standard pronunciation is desirable. Of course, we all prefer our own pronunciations so there’s going to be plenty of room for disagreement as to what the standard should be.
As for “February,” I only noted the spelling. While we’re waving degrees, I have one from the University of London and I say “feb u ary.”
I’m with One Night Stanzas on a lot of this – it seems very specifically American and doesn’t take into account other variations. (I didn’t know how to pronounce Arkansas into well into my mid-20s!) Brits would almost always pronounce the ‘t’ in ‘often’, and would slur other words that might not be that way in American English.
Actually, I was more baffled why you didn’t like the ‘t’ sounded in ‘often’ when most of the other incorrect pronunciations involved letters not being pronounced…
I’m forever correcting my husband on ‘calvary’/’cavalry’ though! And one pronunciation you missed is ‘Wednesday’. I love hearing BBC newsreaders say ‘Wed-uns-day’ while the rest of us just say ‘Wensday’.
I do think a lot of mis-pronunciations happen that way simply because they’re easier to say, though, particularly in quick speech. Trying to get those extra Rs into February and library is something I admit I rarely do unless I’m consciously trying.
This article rubbed me the wrong way and smacks of elitism because it is too localized and doesn’t account for international or even cultural differences in pronunciation.
I would prefer not to read any more of this kind of thing in my daily blogs. I like Daily Writing Tips, but topics with a mean spirited voice will have to go. It’s a legitimate article if it explores mispronunciation from the specific perspective of a localized custom, but the attitude is derisive.
In a climate where people are struggling just to get by, the last thing on my mind is snubbing my neighbors over their choice of pronunciation. This is particularly true for me since I reside in a household with a speaker who is well educated, but English is his second language.
Versus. Two syllable word indicating comparison or contest. The word “verse” is a reference to poetry.
District. Note the “T” at the end. Please include it, rather than saying “districk”.
Tossed salad. It’s called that because traditionally, the ingredients are mixed, or “tossed.” It is NOT a “toss salad.”
Iced tea. See above. It’s tea that has ice added to it. The tea itself is not ice. Please don’t call it “ice tea.”
Nuclear. Nuke-lee-ur. Not nuke-you-lur.
You really have me on a roll…I’d better stop now before my head explodes.
my pet peeve is people who pronounce comfortable as
comfterbul. It drives me crazy that they can’t just as easily pronounce
it( com for ta ble ) in 4 sylables (!!!) Please publicize this for me.
thank you ——Doug
It’s not common, but i hate it when people mispronounce “zoological” or “zoologist”: the first O is a long O, so it’s not supposed to sound like the word “zoo.”
How about “asphalt”? This one makes me crazy. I know many people who pronounce it “ash-fault”.
Elitist? And I thought I had heard it all when someone told me using “curly quotes” was elitist. This article wasn’t mean-spirited at all. (I sure can’t speak for myself, though.)
Another one that gets me is “escape” prounced “ex-kape” instead of es-cape. Argh!
I have to chime in on nuclear. /noo’-klee-uhr/ It drives me bonkers that our elected officials can’t pronounce it correctly.
The matter of “often” is really more of a toss-up, or personal preference. The ‘t’ sound was dropped around the 15th Century to make the word easier to say (kind of like the first ‘t’ in “chestnut” or the ‘p’ in “raspberry”). As education spread and more people learned to write, though, the sound came into use more frequently as people attempted to match the pronunciation to the spelling. So, one could regard the ‘t’ as silent, but it isn’t necessarily wrong not to do so.
grippingyarn, i agree. this article is helpful in some respects but also really classist and ignorant. pronouncing a word a certain way makes you sound ‘hicky’? do you really think that’s not an offensive phrase? just because someone doesn’t speak standard english doesn’t mean they’re dumb; it just means they don’t speak standard english.
Disagree with “jewelry.” It has 2 syllables, not 3.
It is /JULE-REE/.
Nobody pronounces jewel /JEW-ELL/, it’s /JULE/, hence /JULE-REE/.
Are people who say preventative mispronouncing preventive or are they correctly using and pronouncing the word preventative?
Nice bit overall, but I have to agree that it does come off as regional.
One problem with the “Realtor” pronunciation, though, the term is a trademark of the NRA (National Realtor Association) according to their own pronunciation and documentation it is a two syllable word “REEL-TOR” not a three syllable word.
I have to say, some of these do seem overly prescriptive and a bit snooty to me.
One example that sticks out is February. For a start, since when has spelling been a helpful guide to correct pronunciation? And the fact that, as you acknowledge, everyone says it without the “r” suggests that the “r”-less pronunciation is now standard. Neither I nor anyone I know pronounces the “r” (and I have three degrees, including one from the University of Cambridge, so there!) If I came across anyone consciously trying to pronounce the “r” I’d think them socially insecure and affected. Like an American trying to be a bit too English and getting it wrong, in fact.
And as for your comments on place names – unfair, very US-centric and definitely reminiscent of pots, kettles and the colour black. Next time you come to London, try asking a native for directions to Leicester Square, Streatham or even the River Thames. And don’t be surprised when they snigger.
These points aside, I do have prejudices of my own. I automatically assume that anyone who vocalises the “h” when pronouncing “h” (the letter aitch) is illiterate, and that English people who pronounce “privacy” the US way are dimwits who live on a diet of American culture.
Thanks for such a contentious post, though – it makes for much more interesting reading than some of the bland stuff you find on so many writing blogs.
It’s not common, but i hate it when people mispronounce “zoological” or “zoologist”: the first O is a long O, so it’s not supposed to sound like the word “zoo.”
It is common and perfectly correct to pronounce it like ‘zoo’ in the UK.
Neither I nor anyone I know pronounces the “r” (and I have three degrees, including one from the University of Cambridge, so there!) If I came across anyone consciously trying to pronounce the “r” I’d think them socially insecure and affected.
I am the only person I know who pronounces February with the r, and people do look at me like I’m a bit weird! 😉 I can confirm that I’m neither socially insecure or affected, but I do only have two degrees, and neither of them were from Cambridge, so maybe that’s it. 😉
Thank you so much. One of my biggest pet peeves is when people mispronounce cache. It’s like nails on a chalkboard.
I had a teacher that used to say across’d instead of across. My mom still says ideal instead of idea.
We could get into racist territory with this list… some people just can’t pronounce certain letters. Lots of black people pronounce mad as mat, basically most d’s at the end of words become t’s.
Anyhow, I don’t really subscribe to the proper grammer or pronunciation school… if I don’t understand you I will ask for clarification. Don’t care if you speak well or good.
Library! Did I miss it on the list? It’s lye-brare-ee not lye-berry.
Others’ mispronunciations of words do tend to be pet-peevey, as we are truly just cringing inside at others’ potential embarrassment of seeming uneducated. I tend to agree with Jared Stein in comment #3: Language changes. Some pronunciations, like “joo -lur -ee” for jewelry are so widely adopted they become the norm. (“joo well ree” is too difficult for me).
That being said, I don’t think this is a mean-spirited list. This is a writing tips site. The point is: use words wisely. Track down the accents of your character’s region. Avoid words that have varied pronunciation if you want all readers to get the same impression of your character. If you are writing words for performance, like plays or other entertainment art, take special notice on what different pronunciations say about a character. A little bit of dialect goes a long way.
You omitted George W. Bush’s two most favorite words.
Nuclear, which he pronounces New-cue-ler instead of NEW-KLEE-ER
Terrorist, which he pronounces Te-rist instead of TE-RO-RIST
Oh I also wanted to add a bit from Merriam-Webster.com (a paid subscription service). They say that forte (pronounced for tay) meaning a strong point or talent, can be pronounced either fort or for tay. here’s a quote (I edited the special symbols):
2 : one’s strong point
usage In forte we have a word derived from French that in its “strong point” sense has no entirely satisfactory pronunciation. Usage writers have denigrated \’for-tay\ and \’for-tee\ because they reflect the influence of the Italian-derived 2. forte (loud). Their recommended pronunciation \’fort\, however, does not exactly reflect French either: the French would write the word “le fort” and would rhyme it with 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 \fo-tay\ and \fot\ predominate; \FOR-tay\ and \for-TAY\ are probably the most frequent pronunciations in American English.
I’m from the South, so we have many incorrect pronunciations, but the one that wreaks havoc in my bones is really a matter of using the wrong word. People say “Ideal” instead of “idea”. For example, if I was to suggest seeing a movie, someone might respond, “what a great ideal!” ARGH…no. please. It’s a great IDEA!
I hate it when people say “duck” tape instead of “duct” tape.
I agree with Jared Stein and “grippingyarn” on this one. You’re obviously not referring to pronunciations with regional significance. If you were, than I’ll be damned – I must be an idiot!
I’ve never in my life heard anyone pronounce the first “r” of February, nor medieval with four syllables.
On a side note – you should probably not insult people by the way they pronounce words. I would say that’s borderline prejudice. A lot of those “mispronunciations” are accepted in a wide region, even if they are *technically* wrong.
Once I see your degree in linguistics I may forgive you, but until then – this article is just rude.
PS: What is the “proper” way to pronounce “zoological”? I’ve always said “zoo-o-logical”.
My preference for “offen” instead of “often” has nothing to do with logic. It’s the way I was taught to say it. Pronouncing the “t” makes more sense since 1) it’s there, and 2) the word derives from OE “oft.” But then, the “r” is in “February” and you can see from the comments what most people think about the necessity to pronounce it after the “b.”
I prefer “offen” because it sounds right to me and pronouncing the “t” doesn’t. However, I recognize “often” as a perfectly acceptable alternate pronunciation. I even acknowledge the certainty that as my generation dies off “offen” will cease to be heard.
For the fun of it, look up what H.W. Fowler has to say about the “t” in “often” in the 1926 edition of Modern English Usage. I’d quote it here, but talk about snotty!
Honestly, I learned the /FOR-TAY/ vs. /FORT/ pronunciation when I was young, but after constantly being “corrected” when I would say “that’s not my forte” the proper way by educated people who should know better, I gave up on the word in spoken English.
I’m surprised that “nuclear” didn’t make the list– not nuc-U-lar…..
Ah, frak. Here I was thinking I was all smarts and edumacated, and I miss a few of these. Then I also realized how my boyfriend’s somewhat-Southern accent is ruining my remnants of good pronunciation – the-ATE-er instead of THE-a-ter, ruin as one syllable instead of two, and so many more…
It bothers me when people pronounce the word ‘crayon’ like ‘crown.’
Realtor is actually is a two syllable word. Say/Reel-tor, not Re-al-tor. N.A.R has really hammered this pronunciation into the brains of every Realtor in the U.S!
i know someone that says marine corps as how its spelled not (core)
duct tape is the generic name for the type of type. “Duck” tape is a brand of duct tape.
It is the tape equivalent of calling an adhesive strip a band-aid, or a tissue a kleenex.
Niche: Neesh is too hoity-toity.
(And, in fact, that’s one of them … AH-men, please, not long-A-men.)
My best friend’s family always used to look at themselves in the “mirrow” and it used to drive me nuts. I finally pointed out to her (but not her parents or brothers) that the word had an R on the end, and she actually changed that–such a relief!
Lately? Both my parents are flattening the “-er” in things like “drawer” ane “error.” I don’t know where this came from, but suddenly we’re keeping things in “draws” and making “eras” when we’re careless … grrr!
Of course, they’re thrilled to point out that I used to mispronounce “museum” all the time when I was little … but at least I outgrew it.
This article seems to have generated some mixed feedback!
A common difference in pronuncation I hear is with the word, ‘philanthropist’. I pronounce this word with a long ‘a’ and a ‘u’ for the ‘o’. Does that make sense? Many pronunciation websites say it this way too with their ‘soundclips’. But I have heard many pronounce it with a short ‘a’ and short ‘o’. The latest Bond movie pronounces the word in the latter fashion.
Are both right?
I am one of those people who are rather well read, meaning that I do read quite a lot, various things from newspapers, magazines, books, you name it. I am also one of those people who have, on occasion butchered words because, while I understand the meaning of the word, I may have only read it, not heard it. Additionally, I wear hearing aids and thus may miss hearing some of the nuances of correct language pronounciation.
However, it is also quite true that “correct” pronounciation of language is quite dependent on locale, or origin of the person(s) speaking. I know, I have experienced this when as a HS graduate I spent several years overseas, befriending people of various countries, the UK included — and the misunderstandings that occurred between people who THOUGHT they were speaking the same language were numerous.
The most interesting thing, though, that I noticed, was the disparity in pronounciation of the word “herb”. In the US, the “h” is silent and the word is pronounced “erb”. In the UK, however, the “h” is not silent — it is pronounced, the same as in the word “house”. I wonder too, now, about the word “honest”. In the US, the “h” is silent. How is that pronounced in the UK?
Well god forbid language ever, oh, I don’t know … CHANGE?