Grammar You Can Say That Again |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

You Can Say That Again

Because English is so unpredictable, it’s often impossible to infer a word’s pronunciation from its spelling. Dictionaries help, to a point. But dictionaries often seem all too willing to penalize time-honored pronunciations after a word gets mispronounced by a sufficient number of people.

So here is another in our series of pronunciation columns. The words are familiar, but their traditional pronunciations may surprise you. (Note: capital letters denote a stressed syllable.)

Hysteria  The er is pronounced like ear rather than air. Say hiss-TEER-ia, not hiss-TAIR-ia.

Jewelry  It’s hard to figure how anyone who can spell this word would mispronounce it, but the fact remains that many people say “jula-ree.” To them we say, please explain how j-e-w-e-l spells “jula.”

Consummate  When used as an adjective, as in “She is the consummate hostess,” the correct pronunciation is cun-SUM-it, although CON-sa-mit has all but taken over. You don’t hear many Americans say cun-SUM-it, but to its credit the latest edition (2011) of theAmerican Heritage Dictionary of the English Language still prefers it.

Memorabilia  It is often mispronounced memmer-a-BEE-lia. Say memmer-a-BILL-ia. (Few people use, or are even aware of, the singular form: memorabile.)

Repartee  This word for witty banter is pronounced rep-ur-TEE or rep-ar-TEE. Repartee came into English from the French repartie, meaning “a sharp answer.” Our 1968 Random House American College Dictionary lists rep-ur-TEE as the only allowable pronunciation. The 2014 Webster’s New World does not list rep-ur-TEE at all. It prefers rep-ar-TEE, but also accepts the pseudo-French rep-ar-TAY.

Incognito  Everyone pronounces this word the same: in-kahg-NEET-o, right? Not according to our ’68 American College Dictionary. A mere 47 years ago only one pronunciation of this word was acceptable to Random House: in-KAHG-nitto, stress on the second syllable, with the third syllable pronounced “nit” instead of “neet.” Quite a change. The aforementioned American Heritage dictionary, so meticulous that it has its own usage panel, now gives first preference to in-kahg-NEET-o, but in-KAHG-nitto gets second billing, so someone is still pronouncing it that way.

Blithe  The sticking point here is the th sound. It’s the difference between writhe and wreath, with the soft th the correct choice; blithe and writhe make an exact rhyme.

Elvis Presley  Those who grew up listening to him will verify that PREZ-lee is the wrong way to pronounce Elvis’s last name. PRESS-lee is how the singer himself pronounced it.

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8 responses to “You Can Say That Again”

  1. Tom Byrd says:

    The pronunciation that drives me nuts is ZOO-ol-o-gee. I think that is the preferred Brit pronunciation. But it can’t be right. If you pronounce the first syllable ZOO (like the place to keep animals in cages) you have used up both of the o’s and you don’t have one left for the second syllable. ZOE-ol-o-gee has to be the correct pronunciation, right?

    • The American Heritage Dictionary defends “zoo-ology” to some extent, but dictionaries are notoriously erratic when it comes to pronunciation. Charles Harrington Elster, a renowned pronunciation scholar, rejects “zoo-ology” and insists on zoe-ology.

  2. Donna M. says:

    I was taught that it was improper to begin a sentence with “but” or “and” unless I was writing in dialogue. It seems now that everyone is writing that way. I read an article in Newsweek Magazine, no less, whose author did it repeatedly. Is that now acceptable?

    • It has always been acceptable, but grade-school teachers discourage it, which is OK, because youngsters need to learn to write crisp sentences above all. And and but lead to run-on sentences.

  3. David P. says:

    The word ‘aluminium’ should be pronounced as it is written viz. there is a second ‘I’. Why then does the USA drop the ‘I’ when verbally pronouncing it in speech. No other element is treated this way e.g. Cadmium, sodium, calcium. Time for American teachers to remedy this, particularly those teaching science and chemistry. Your thoughts?

    • That “[n]o other element is treated this way” is incorrect. Don’t forget molybedenum, tantalum, and platinum. Aluminum is actually the older spelling. Neither spelling is considered superior to the other; it’s just that one is used in North America and the other outside North America.

  4. Wayne B. says:

    A friend of mine is a med student. It drives her crazy when two of her professors say, “sonta-meter” for “centimeter.” An third person snootily explained that “it’s French” which my friend and I think is absurd because we a perfectly good American pronounciation.

    What say you?

    • If your friend’s professors are teaching in a French-speaking country, they may pronounce it that way. However, that’s not how we pronounce centimeter in the U.S. By the way, the word originally derives from Latin.

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