Writing and Pronunciation
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.
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.
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