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Feb-roo-ary vs. Feb-yoo-ary
We all know that February is the only month of variable length, and the only month with fewer than 30 days. But of greater concern here: it’s the
only month that most Americans can’t pronounce.
That includes radio and TV commentators, whose job it is to say things right. There are a few meticulous media types who correctly say “Feb-roo-ary.” But for every one of them, there are countless others who say “Feb-yoo-ary.” Then there are those who
fecklessly say “Febber-ary”—at least they’re trying, but it only makes “Febber-ary” all the more annoying. Last and
least is “Feb-wary,” a feeble cop-out.
I hauled out my American Heritage dictionary, about the best you can get this side of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary, and I checked to see what
the renowned American Heritage Usage Panel had to say about pronouncing February.
It turns out the answer is: a lot. And I hate to butt heads with this great dictionary’s panel of experts, but I have a big problem with the
“Usage Note” I found. It said that “Feb-yoo-ary” is “quite common in educated speech” and “generally considered
Wait, it gets worse. “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.” By this dizzy reasoning, your six-year-old has been right all
along in pronouncing library “lie-berry.”
“In the case of February,” the panel adds, “the loss of the first r is also owing to the influence of January,
which has only one r.” I guess this means we get so accustomed to “yoo-ary” after 31 days of January that our poor
little brains and tongues can’t make the adjustment—but the compassionate arbiters on the usage panel want us to know it’s OK, they
Well, to me, this is a dismal misstep by the panel, usually so strict and no-nonsense in its findings. Legitimizing widespread carelessness is where
madness lies. Such leniency is an unappetizing leftover from the anything-goes 1960s. That’s when the language was taken down the dead-end trail that
has brought America to the brink of illiteracy. That’s when traditional grammar was attacked as elitist, even racist, for supposedly stifling
spontaneity and marginalizing the underclasses by imposing on them its tyrannical rules. This was the position taken not only by the rebellious youth of
that era, but also by many self-doubting teachers and professors, who chose appeasement over their solemn responsibilities as keepers of the cultural
Anyway, reeling from this seeming betrayal by one of my most trusted allies, I sought and found a second opinion in There Is No Zoo in Zoology and Other Beastly Mispronunciations by Charles Harrington Elster. The enlightened Mr. Elster did not disappoint:
Feb-roo-ary “is hard to say, and so most people say [Feb-yoo-ary] because it is easier, not because it is right … [Feb-yoo-ary] may now be
standard, but it is still beastly.” Amen, brother.
But Elster wasn’t through. In a direct dig at the American Heritage panel, he said “certain dictionaries have gone to great lengths to tell you
that a fancy linguistic process called dissimilation is at work here … the result being that most educated speakers now replace the first R in February with a Y …
“That is a very convenient explanation, which makes a mispronunciation look right because so many people use it, and makes the correct pronunciation
look wrong …
“Therefore, I will not dissemble about dissimilation, or feed you some malarkey about how [Feb-yoo-ary] is an alternative pronunciation based on
analogy with January.” Ouch—a stinging rebuke from an indignant word nerd!
As for me, I’m not quite that angry with the American Heritage dictionary, which I consider an invaluable resource. I’m just glad I
have others like Elster, too.
Because of the E-Newsletter's large readership, please submit your English usage questions through GrammarBook.com's “Grammar Blog.”
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For those of you who live outside the U.S. and Canada, although the publisher is not able to offer free shipping, you will get 35 percent off to help offset your shipping costs. Simply go to bit.ly/1996hkA and use discount code E9X4A.
This offer is good through the publication date of February 10.
With our best wishes for good grammar,
The team at GrammarBook.com
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Every year, English teachers from across the country can submit their collections of actual similes and metaphors found in high school essays. These excerpts are published each year to the amusement of teachers across the country. Here is a selection of one year's winners:
From the attic came an unearthly howl. The whole scene had an eerie, surreal quality, like when you're on vacation in another city and Jeopardy comes on at 7:00 p.m. instead of 7:30.
Her hair glistened in the rain like a nose hair after a sneeze.
The hailstones leaped from the pavement, just like maggots when you fry them in hot grease.
Learn all about who and whom, affect and effect, subjects and verbs, adjectives and adverbs, commas, semicolons, quotation marks, and much more by just sitting back and enjoying these easy-to-follow lessons. Tell your colleagues (and boss), children, teachers, and friends. Click here to watch.