How To Pronounce Divisive

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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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16 thoughts on “How To Pronounce Divisive”

  1. 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.

  2. 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”!

  3. 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.

  4. 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.”

  5. 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?!

  6. “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!

  7. 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.

  8. @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…

  9. The first time I heard the word divisive with a short i, I knew what it meant, but was instantly attracted to it because it sounded better to me even though I learned it the other way. After that every time someone said divisive with a long I, it sounded odd to me. Had absolutely nothing to do with self-anointed cultural elites. Smh

    Maybe I am just getting tired of stubborn insistence on tradition. I can think of so many other more important things to get bent out of shape over. In fact different pronunciations has taught me to be less uptight myself.

  10. I sometimes seem to be the only one who cares that the “W” is being ignored these days. To me, there should be a difference between “wail” and “whale”; “witch” and “which”!
    Also, it bothers me that folks don’t distinguish between words like “sell” and “sale/sail”. They say “sellboat”, for example. Or you’ll hear that the dog wagged his “tell”!

  11. My theory about the new pronunciation of divisive is that it all began with President Barack Obama. He was so beloved and imitated that when he came up with the short second I pronunciation people seized on it immediately. I heard it for the first time from Obama, and soon after it was everywhere.

  12. I’m not so sure about your short “i” in “divisive” theory (that it all began with Obama), Cynthia, as the article notes an earlier citation. Author Charles Elster states he first heard the mispronunciation in a political context when George H.W. Bush used it during his 1989 inaugural address.

  13. The word “divisive” has two pronunciations: with a long “i” sound on the second syllable and with a short “i” sound on the second syllable. The British prefer the latter pronunciation, which may account for Bush and Obama pronouncing it as “divisive” with a short “i” because they were both educated in the Northeast.

    The Pilgrims would have brought that pronunciation to New England when they settled there because, after all, they were British. I, too, was educated in the Northeast. I would like to give a solid reason for pronouncing the word with a short “i.”

    We have all learned the rule that, when a word ends in silent “e,” the vowel before it is long. However, when you remove the silent “e,” the vowel before it becomes short.

    Consider the words “divisible” and “indivisible.” We do not pronounce those two words with a long “i” in the second and third syllables, respectively. “Divisive” follows the same rule.

    Consequently, pronounce “divisive” and “divisible” with a short “i” in the second syllable,and “indivisible” with a short “i” in the third syllable.

  14. I’m British and can say that from my experience (54 years) the short ‘i’ divisive is a relatively recent phenomenon in Britain. I find it jarring every time I hear it. Pronunciation does matter because the mental double-take which occurs distracts from the sense that the speaker is trying to convey. It is the same reason that some dialects are impenetrable from region to region.
    Most of these mis-pronunciations stem from people guessing the pronunciation of unfamiliar written words which, given the inconsistent nature of English pronunciation, is perfectly understandable.
    I have a few pet peeves on pronunciation, but one that springs to mind is the pronunciation of the words ‘ultimate / ultimately’ being pronounced as if they begin with an ‘a’. Anyone noticed that one?

  15. I looked up the pronunciation of divisive recently and happened upon this site as I thought I suddenly had it wrong all of these years. (When you reach a certain age you start to questions things you thought you knew…) The ‘aks’ vs ‘ask’ drives me insane and akin to nails on a blackboard. (“Did he aks you out?” recently heard on a NYC bus in a conversation between two millennials. Yikes!!)

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