Grammar More on Misspoken or Mispronounced Words and Phrases |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

More on Misspoken or Mispronounced Words and Phrases

A few weeks back we explored words and phrases that can sabotage our communication—and our perceived persuasion—by being mispronounced or misspoken. The article inspired thoughtful feedback and additional entries from readers who likewise monitor the proper use of English.

What follows are two items from our current list that were questioned, as well as more words and phrases to watch out for.

Contested Entries

Forte to mean “strength” or “talent,” correctly pronounced fort, often mispronounced as for-tay.

Responses both supported and opposed this entry. Observations in favor distinguished the French feminine forte (silent e: fort) and masculine fort (silent t: for) meaning “strong” from the Italian forte (FOR-tay) meaning “loud.” In this case, pronunciation communicates definition, reinforcing our stance that forte to mean “talent” or “strength” in American English maintains the silent e.

The opposition pointed out that forte has no satisfactory pronunciation in American English. Another reader further noted that the Merriam-Webster dictionary allows for pronunciation of forte as either fort or for-tay.

Another reader identified the French word can be confused between fort (meaning a defensive structure stationed with troops, pronounced for) and forte (meaning a loud section of music, pronounced for-tay). With that confusion, the two words’ meanings and pronunciations can often be swapped.

After weighing the feedback and evidence, our stance is that try as we might to define and uphold a single proper usage, forte will vary in pronunciations that may not form a majority. If they do, the most prominent form in American English will likely tilt toward for-tay with the accent on either the first or the second syllable or no accent at all.

Niche to mean “suitable position, distinct market segment”; correctly pronounced nich, often mispronounced as neesh.

Similar to the counterclaims concerning forte, opposing observation cites the pronunciation of this French word meaning “recess, alcove” as neesh or, in some cases, neesh-uh.

While we recognize the word’s source and original treatment, we are most interested in American English pronunciation and usage. Within that context, most of our office dictionaries, as well as those we checked online, list the pronunciation nich. A few allow for neesh as a secondary pronunciation, which is more popular in British English than in American.

Added Entries

Our readers identified these other misspoken or mispronounced words and phrases:

Word or Phrase (Glitch: S=misspoken, P=mispronounced) Correct Treatment
brother/sister-in-laws (S) brothers/sisters-in-law
physical (relating to financial matters) (S) fiscal (FIS-kuhl)
I could care less. (S) I couldn’t care less.
irregardless (S) regardless
jewelry (P) JOO-uhl-ree not JOO-ler-ee
library (P) LIE-brer-ee not LIE-bare-ee
Old Timers’ Disease (S) Alzheimer’s disease
prostrate disease (S) prostate disease
frigerator (S) refrigerator
salmon (P) SAM-uhn not SAL-muhn
verse (to mean opposed to, in conflict with) (S) versus

We also received references to words with two apparent schools of pronunciation: era (EER-uh or AIR-uh) and often (OFF-en or OFF-tun). As with forte and niche, here we have diction that may be proper and common to some but not accepted by others. Furthermore, dictionaries provide one pronunciation or the other (or both) for each word. As we’ve noted before for often, we’ll stick with OFF-en while designating OFF-tun as a hypercorrection. We have no preference regarding era and find either pronunciation acceptable.

We also conclude that this topic inspires us to refer to multiple dictionaries when we’re uncertain of how to say a word correctly. Doing so opens us all to different points of view and helps us determine which pronunciation suits our sense of accuracy, as well as our style of usage.

We’ll remain on the lookout for other words and phrases that can interfere with articulate writing and speaking. We encourage you to continue doing the same!

If the article or the existing discussions do not address a thought or question you have on the subject, please use the "Comment" box at the bottom of this page.

20 responses to “More on Misspoken or Mispronounced Words and Phrases”

  1. Carolyn says:

    While acknowledging the difference between the word’s French and Italian uses, some linguistic purists will also point out the accurate pronunciation of the French forte is for—the t and the e are both silent.

    That is not correct. A consonant followed by an e is pronounced in French. Fort would be pronounced for, but not forte. The same misconception explains why some people say pree fee for prix fixe.

  2. Barry Ulrich says:

    Does Febrooary qualify for your list?

  3. Anna says:

    I just won’t use the word “niche” any longer. I have always pronounced it “neesh,” and “nich” is so ugly sounding that I cannot bring myself to say it.
    When there is a “niche” in the wall, is that a “nich” too?


    Interesting. I always pronounced it as for-tay and never heard it pronounced as fort in this context. I didnt even know there was a debate about this.
    Here’s another word to add to your list of mispronounced misspoken words –
    supposably instead of supposedly. I hear it this regularly when a person means supposedly and it makes me cringe.

  5. Chezron says:

    You mention era and often, and you suggest a pronunciation for often, how about era? Which pronunciation is preferred?

  6. Stephen B. says:

    I continue to enjoy, and learn from, your weekly grammar newsletter. Even though I am retired, I continue to write and edit scientific papers in my field of research (toxic phytoplankton). There are always new tidbits, and some things that I have questioned forwever are often addressed.

    In this week’s issue, you indicate: “salmon” pronounced: SAM-uhn not SAL-muhn

    I assume that the same applies to “salmonella,” but here I am, still questioning how it should be pronounced (SAM-uhn-ella?).

  7. Janice H. says:

    I have the impression that most of my friends and acquaintances to whom I say “Grammar” would like to shriek and run away. A note about today’s message about misspoken and mispronounced words: In French the final “t” of the masculine singular “fort” is indeed silent, but the “t” in the feminine “forte” is pronounced. In general final consonants in French are silent except for c, r, f, and l (easy to remember with the word “careful”). Have a good day!

  8. Christie D. says:

    These are so helpful! One thing you mentioned brought to mind something I’ve noticed in the past couple of years. Not only are people using “verse” instead of “versus,” but they’re also using the wrong word as a verb! I’ve had my middle school students tell me about an afterschool game and say, “We were versing (opposing school).” Ugh!

  9. Barbara C. says:

    Something else I often hear people say incorrectly, after a pause, is “Anyways…” I believe it should be “Anyway…” ?

    Thanks – I always have something to think about after receiving your newsletter!

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