Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Saying It Wrong

Garner's Modern American Usage (by Bryan A. Garner) is my favorite source for American English language usage. He walks the line between prescriptivism and descriptivism with his Language Change Index, which charts five stages of language innovation:

  • use by a small minority
  • broader use, but thought by most speakers to be nonstandard
  • informal use by many speakers
  • formal and informal use (though still resisted by a die-hard few) 
  • near-universal use and acceptance
I recently read the entry on pronunciation, and it appears that here, Garner comes down more on the prescriptivist side than in the middle. Though he writes, "when opinions [on pronunciation] diverge among reasonable and educated people, there must be considerable leeway," he then goes on to list half a page of commonly mispronounced words as if there is only one way to pronounce each of them.

I have no problem with pointing out that nuclear and realtor get their syllables mispronounced or scrambled by some speakers, but I think Garner's list throws together dialect pronunciations (especially Black English) with others that are clearly errors.

There were seven words on the list that I admit to mispronouncing.

Words I had no idea I was pronouncing incorrectly:
  • almond -- AH - mənd, according to Garner. I have never heard anyone say it this way. And the old Almond Joy jingle clearly sang out ALL - mənd
  • flaccid -- FLAK - sid, when I thought it was FLA - sid. The analogy to other words like success and access is enough to convince me I am wrong. I'll try to remember, though I don't think I've ever said this word aloud.
  • schism -- SIZ - əm. I'm not sure I've ever heard anyone say this word, and assumed it was SKIZ - əm. I don't know why it's pronounced as Garner says, when other words with an sch (like school and schizophrenia) get the added k sound, and schistosomiasis and schist get an sh sound instead. I'll bet it has something to do with French.
Words I pronounce incorrectly, but believe are from a regional dialect of my childhood:
  • fifth -- I drop the middle f. Can't help it. Sometimes I try to put it in, but I feel like I'm over-correcting.
  • grocery -- I confess to pronouncing it GROH - shree most of the time instead of GROHS - [ə] - ree
  • probably -- I drop the middle syllable (PROB - lee) unless I am speaking carefully (PROB -ə- blee)
Words I continue to mispronounce, even though I know I'm saying it incorrectly:
  • sherbet -- until the last decade or so, I could have sworn there was another r in that second syllable, but I finally learned there isn't. But I have to insist I've only heard it pronounced the correct way a few times in my life. Just about everyone says SHER - bert, which would put it at Stage 3 of Garner's Language Change Index.
Other words on the list, all of which I happen to pronounce correctly: affluent, album, applicable, arctic, asked, asterisk, athlete, cement, comparable, comptroller, concierge, coupon, descent, Detroit, ebullient, ecstatic, escape, espresso, et cetera, extraordinary, height, heinous, hundred, hypnotize, Illinois, influence, insurance, interesting, intravenous, irrevocable, liaison, library, literature, mirror, mischievous, nuclear, often, pamphlet, persevere, police, preferable, probably, pronunciation, realtor, secretary, specifically, substantive, wash, zoology

(Thanks to Michael Leddy for pointing me to Garner and his indispensable book.)


Michael Leddy said...

You’re welcome!

I’ve had sherbet wrong from childhood. I remember it being called “ice cream sherbert.”

I remember an elementary-school teacher who said “mischievious.” I thought I must have had it wrong.

The word whose pronunciation I’m most aware of lately is often. It seems that everyone now sounds the t.

Daughter Number Three said...

I thought about mentioning often because I have also noticed that almost everyone I hear (especially pundits and talking heads on television) sounds the t. But doesn't it seem kind of arbitrary that the t is supposed to be silent? I suppose I should look up how the pronunciation came to be what it is said to be.

Ms Sparrow said...

I also find it annoying when people sound the "t" in often. It sounds ignorant to my ear. By far the most annoying mispronunciation, however, is when people say "ax" instead of ask--along with all the variants such as: ex-cape instead of escape, etc.

Barbara said...

Sorry to be late to the game, but it seems to me that he is wrong about almond, flaccid and schism. For almond, I am seeing multiple dictionary sources where the British pronunciation has no "l" and the American does. I could not readily find a dictionary that pronounced schism his way. And I was seeing flaccid given with both pronunciations. Surely, then, educated people are disagreeing?

I never thought about "often" until I realized about 10 years ago that my son said it with the "t" and it drove me crazy. But apparently the "t" has come and gone and come again, so if I live another hundred years or so it will go away again maybe.

Gina said...

I had not heard of Garner's usage book. I plan to look for it. For my essays, I use the AP usage manual, and for my fiction I tend to favor the Chicago Manual.

It sounds like he may discuss Brit vs. American pronunciations, is that true? I have never heard flaccid pronounced "flak-sid." I wouldn't recognize it. Or the pronunciations Garner suggests for almond and schism. I've always pronounced grocery as groshree, and sherbet as sherbert! LOL

Daughter Number Three said...

Gina, I think because you and I are from places that are not too far apart in upstate New York, that may account for our fondness for groshree stores.

Barbara, I agree that it seems educated people disagree on some of these (almond for sure... maybe schism and flaccid). My Webster's New Collegiate (1974) includes both pronunciations of flaccid, but puts flak - sid first. It also lists both for schism, with siz - em first and the note "skiz is rare among churchmen."