Grammar Are Two r‘s One Too Many? |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

Are Two r‘s One Too Many?

Here we are, in the month that’s hard to spell and harder to pronounce. Every year I grit my teeth listening to the bizarre ways people mangle “February.” The culprit is that first r. Most people just ignore it and say “Feb-yoo-ary.”

The 2006 American Heritage dictionary has a “Usage Note” at “February” that made my brain squirm the first time I read it: “the variant pronunciation [Feb-yoo-ary] … is quite common in educated speech and is generally considered acceptable. The loss of the first r in this pronunciation can be accounted for by the phonological process known as dissimilation, by which similar sounds in a word tend to become less similar.”

Oh, I grumbled. Now I’m expected to believe that a blatant mispronunciation is not simply
sloppy—no, don’t you see, it’s a phonological process, dear boy.

This is the kind of thing that gives scholarship a bad name. At least that was my initial reaction. Don’t get me wrong, I still believe “Feb-roo-ary” is the way to go, but there might be more to this dissimilation business than I originally recognized. Take a look at other instances …

Library  Just about every schoolchild who ever lived has said “lie-berry,” and some say it well into their teens. The similarity of this word to February can’t be overlooked.

Roller coaster   I have heard sane adults say they went on the “rolly coaster.”

Kindergarten  Come on, admit it, you or someone you know says “kin-dee-garten.” You’re as likely to hear it from parents as from kin-dee-gartners themselves.

Peripheral  It’s quite common to hear things like, “When I was a young player, I learned to use my periph-ee-al vision.”

All four of the previous examples are words in which the r’s cause the difficulty. But other consonants can create similar problems …

Probably  A lot of, uh, dissimilators pronounce it “prob-lee.”

Et cetera (etc.)  Many smart, educated people botch, er, dissimilate the first t, and say “eck settera” rather than “et.”

I don’t know if the next two examples count as “textbook” dissimilation, but a curious thing happens with certain double-c’s:

Succinct  Everyone says “suh-sinkt.” When was the last time you heard someone correctly pronounce it “suk-sinkt”? Well, why else are there two c’s? You don’t say “secede” when you mean succeed.

Flaccid  Again, most people overlook one of those c’s. The widespread mispronunciation is “flassid”; the correct pronunciation is “flaxid.”

But I’ve been saving the best for last. Can anyone explain the silent c in Connecticut? All I’ve been able to dig up is that the state got its name from quinnitukqut, a Mohican word meaning “beside the long tidal river.” So where does the second c in Connecticut come from? Note that it’s quinnitukqut, not quinnictukqut.

Maybe, when nobody was looking, some prankster, perhaps one of the ringleaders of Dissimilation Theory, sneaked in that middle c, daring anyone to pronounce it.

Tom Stern

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27 responses to “Are Two r‘s One Too Many?”

  1. Doyze says:

    I think Americans’ obsession with keeping it short and simple is killing their english. I need to digress a bit. Is this sentence correct and why? “I’m at a friend’s”. Thank you Grammarbook for all the grammar lessons.

    • If you are writing an informal note, writing “I’m at a friend’s” is acceptable with the word “house,” or “place” implied. In a formal document, a specific noun following “friend’s” is suggested.

  2. KBEE says:

    I so enjoyed this article, but wondered why “nuc-yoo-lar” was left off? I shudder every time I hear that mispronunciation!

  3. Kelly Carter says:

    And how about the common mispronunciation of “nuclear” as something like “NOO kuh ler”? George W. Bush, are you listening?

  4. Nancy F. says:

    Why on earth is there an apostrophe in the title (r’s)??

    • We are surprised at your reaction to this common usage, which is endorsed by many authorities. It is customary to pluralize single letters with an apostrophe plus s. If we’d been writing about a’s rather than r’s, how would you otherwise know we meant the letter a rather than the word as?

  5. Shiv A. says:

    r apostrophe s?
    rs won’t work
    two ‘r’ one too many??

    • Please see our response to Nancy F., above. Your suggestion “two ‘r’ one too many” is grammatically incorrect, and should be written “two r‘s are one too many.”

  6. Anshuman K. says:

    How about the two r’s and the pronunciation of the word “itinerary”?

  7. Marie L. says:

    Also “realtor” comes out as “realator ” very often

  8. Fred B. says:

    I thought for sure you were heading toward nuclear. As for r’s, they don’t count in Boston, where they only appear where they don’t belong, as in “I had a good idear.”

    When will “a whole nother” become acceptable speech?

  9. Brigitte F. says:

    You spelt Mohegan wrong. “Mohican” is a tribe in upstate NY, I believe. The tribe on the Thames River, two of them actually, one on the west side and another different tribe on the east banks, is “Mohegan”.

    • Our information about the origin of the word “Connecticut” came from the Online Etymology Dictionary, which says: “U.S. state, originally the name of the river, said to be from Mohican (Algonquian) quinnitukqut.”

  10. Paul A. says:

    I realize you couldn’t list all the words, but here are some more that come to mind:

    1. Massachusetts, with the “ch” pronounced as a “t”

    2. Asterisk, when the “s” completely disappears

    3. Nuclear, made famous by President Jimmy Carter with his “nuke-u-er” or something like that

    Keep ’em comin’! Keep us on our toes!

    Thanks for the fun column, sir.

    • We’re likely to write about this topic again next February. We’ll include “asterisk” if we do.

      As we recall, Jimmy Carter pronounced “nuclear” as “nook-ee-uh.”

      Thank you for the kind words.

  11. Jim Emerson says:

    I have never heard anyone say “flak-sid,” though I’ve seen it as al alternate pronunciation in dictionaries. And “kin-dee-garten”? Not here in the Pacific Northwest, where the childhood mispronunciation was always “kinder-garden.”

    I find “r’s” to be ugly. When referring to a letter as an alphabetical symbol (alone or as part of an acronym) I prefer to just capitalize it and apply the usual rules: “Are Two Rs One Too Many?” It’s less confusing — and works even better when using headline/title case.

  12. Roxanne says:

    No, two r’s are not one too many.

    Our beautiful English Language has been slowly deteriorating due to the inadequacy of the Public Educational System to properly teach the 3 R’s: readin’, ritin’, and rithmetic! And now, with the progression of technology; “texting” and “tweeting”, with their accepted amount of deplorable errors, our written language is in a state of rapid decline with no end in sight.

    I’m here to learn; to improve my writing skills, and to perfect my obsession with “goofreading”!

    I am sincerely grateful to have found this website and the invaluable learning tools…
    A) provided?
    B) provided in it?
    C) it provides?

    Thank you!

  13. kat says:

    I just found this delightful forum for those of us who instinctively react to mispronunciations and grammatical gaffs.

  14. Rebecca Ariss says:

    “Expresso” is another pet peeve for sure!

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