Words I Cannot Say Properly November 29, 2008

Words I Cannot Say Properly

Apparently, I’ve been saying several words incorrectly my entire life without realizing it.

It took a group of my sophomore Geometry students to finally point this out to me… and now they won’t allow me to proceed with class unless I correct myself.

For example:

Picture. I say “pitcher.” They say “Pick-chur.”

Figure. I say “figger.” They say “fig-yur.”

Length. I say “lenth.” They say “Lane-th.”

(Update: I’m now adding to the original list:)

Tuesday. I say “Chews-day.” They say “Toos-day.”

Coupon. I say “Q-pon.” They say “Coo-pon.”

Sword. I say “sword” (with a “w”). They say “sord.”

Every time I say one of these words — and it happens a lot in a Geometry classroom — I hear giggles followed by the words, “Don’t you coach the Speech Team?”

Now, I’m wondering which other words I’ve been mispronouncing all my life…

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  • As a person who majored in the biological sciences many years, I would say there is a wide range of normal variation in any population.

    If your students can understand you and are not distracted by your linguistic variation, is it really a problem?

  • Loren Petrich

    I say pick-chur, fig-yur, and leenkth

  • I say lenkth. (shrug)

  • All I can say is that your pronunciation sounds like the way we say things over in sunny England. Well, at least when we use slang and miss out letters. Same thing with people who pronounce “butter” like “but-er” instead of “but-ter”.

    I tend to say “figger” and “lenth”, but I think I say “pick-chur” ok.

  • I say pik-tchur or pik-chur, fig-yur, and lenkth.

    But being from NY, I mispronounce caw-fee and other words with similar vowels.

  • Ubi Dubius

    My theory is that you can often identify readers by gross mispronounciations combined with a large vocabulary. For example, it took me the longest time to realize that “infrared” light (read) and “infra-red” light (heard) were the same thing.

  • Where are you from and where do you teach? My husband says sill instead of seal (seel) … I say lenth! We’re from the Midwest and now live out east. I’ve heard some doozies here in Virginia. Such as “aboot” instead of about and “oovah” instead of over. No, I’m not in Canada! I love accents.

  • I’m with bendjm, I say lenkth.

    My pet peeve is when some people (like my wife’s grandmother) say “lie-berry” instead of “lie-brary”

    It was pointed out to me in high school, though, that I say “chews-day” instead of “twos-day”

  • You do say cath-o-lick rather than cath-lick, which is actually correct, but unique.

  • llewellly

    All of the alternative pronunciations you list above are dominant in more than one US regional accent. Your students are anal accent haters.

  • As a kid I had a huge vocabulary, much of which I got from reading. Since I learned these words by reading, I came up with my own pronunciations:

    pronunciations: “pronounce-eeashuns”
    calligraphy: “kah-lee-graph-ee”
    photography: “photo-graph-ee”
    nudist: “noo-die-st”
    spanish: “spain-ish”

    I’d keep going but it’s just embarassing…I still pronounce them this way all the time despite my knowing the real pronounce-eeashun.


  • English isn’t my first, or even second, language, so while I don’t have an overt accent, I misspronounce a few words and sounds. I really can’t do the “th” sound in words like “the” and “three” and I find that sometimes I shorten vowel sounds that are supposed to be longer, or I place the stress on the wrong syllable. I really hate it when people make fun of me for it, because in terms of grammar, syntax and vocabulary, I have a better English than some native speakers. I agree with llewellly on your students being anal.

  • Ubi Dubium

    I’ve heard some doozies here in Virginia. Such as “aboot” instead of about and “oovah” instead of over.

    Amanda – you must be in Richmond or Tidewater. That’s a distinctive and very old, regional accent there. My mother’s family (from Richmond) all spoke that way. My uncle, who hasn’t lived in Richmond since his childhood, still talks like that.

  • MathMike

    44 = Farty-four. to rhyme with Slartibartfast. 🙂
    Compass = Com-pass, not Cum-puss.
    And I have a hard time with Equiangular. Too many vowels grouped together.
    By the way, I also teach Geometry, coach the Academic team, and assist the Speech & Debate team. Does that make one of us the evil twin of the other? 😉

  • Doreen

    At least you don’t have foreign accent. One of the reasons why I’m currently struggling with college Trig is that my current teacher and my last teacher had accents. It’s hard enough as it is for me to follow a line of thought that includes math vocabulary. Add a foreign accent and I’m lost. My current teacher told me I need to come to him more if I’m struggling. I finally took his advice and almost ended up in tears because I was so frustrated with trying to understand him. I decided to find tutoring elsewhere.

    Although some of your students may just be poking fun or being anal, some may stop paying attention to your lecture if they have to stop and think about a word you used. From your speeches I’ve seen on youtube, though, it doesn’t seem like it would be that much of an issue.

  • By the way, I also teach Geometry, coach the Academic team, and assist the Speech & Debate team. Does that make one of us the evil twin of the other? 😉

    Considering I did Academic team in high school, yep, I think that makes one of us the evil twin of the other.

    Hell, we’re both atheists, right? Perhaps we’re both evil twins.

  • Some of my pet peeves include people who say:

    supposably (instead of supposedly)

    whole ‘nuther

    irregardless – it’s not a word. It’s a bastardization of regardless and irrespective. This one drives me bonkers. It’s usually said by fairly well educated people who are trying to let other people know they are educated. The irony is delicious.

    aks, instead of ask

    expecially, instead of especially.

    But my favorite of all time was from my college physics professor (he was a Chinese national) who pronounced “omega,” like
    The first time he said it, I was like, “oh my god, what? What’s wrong?”

    college. good times.

    edited to add college prof story.

  • A big one around these parts is “water”:

    I say wah-ter
    The colloquialism is “wooder”

  • Ulrich

    I can totally relate to that. My maternal language (German) is largely phonetic, i.e. for most words, the pronunciation follows directly from the spelling. Thus, when I see an unknown foreign word, I automatically try to determine its pronunciation by drawing analogies to known words with similar spelling. In English, where some combinations of letters can be pronounced in several different ways and there is apparently no rule for it; this has led me to wrong conclusions several times. There are likely still words I pronounce wrong without knowing.

  • I hate when people pronounce words like “huge” and “human” as if they start with the letter “y” like “yooge” and “you-men”. Its probably my biggest pet peeve.

  • Matt

    My partner and his sister work at the local public radio station. In fact, she’s an anchor. I love listening to her and calling her on her mispronunciations. The interesting thing is that she’s knows she mispronouncing the word even as it leaves her mouth.

    Myself, I’ve been told I don’t have any identifiable accent even tho I grew up in burbs of Chicago and my entire family has that accent.

  • Stephen P

    FWIW, I’d agree with your students on ‘picture’, agree with you on ‘figure’, and as for ‘length’ I’d say you should all stop being so damn lazy and pronounce the ‘g’.

    (Sorry, I’m feeling assertive today.)

  • Tarrkid

    Hemant, just so long as you don’t say NOO-kyoo-lur…

    If you do, I’ll lose all respect for you.

  • Cindy

    My husband and I disagree on Umbrella, Insurance and Thanksgiving. He puts the stress on the 2nd syllables; I put it on the first. He also pronounces pen and pin differently; they rhyme to me. (He grew up in New England. He has lost his penchant for adding r’s where they don’t belong…”I sawr it.”)
    Someone at work said “patriot” like pat-ree-ot; I say Pay tree ut.

  • Diane

    But how do you pronounce “height”? I’ve heard so many people put a “th” at the end like it’s part of the dimensional “th” series: width depth heightth. It makes me cringe.

    I used to make fun of people who pronounced Illinois like it begins with an E but I find that as I get older, I get lazier, and now I say it that way, too. I need a diction refresher course.

  • Jim

    In the Pacific NW a creek is a crik and you’d better well know it.

  • Sara

    I can’t say the combination “tr”. Truck for me becomes “chruck”, trim becomes “chrim”, trace becomes “chrase”, etc.

    I grew up in Evanston and Wilmette, and I say length with the velar n, like in -ing endings.

    Sociolinguistics is fun.

  • Tony Pro

    I’ve the same problem.
    Everyone else says (in pledge allegiance) “one nation, under God, indivisible”.
    I always say “one nation, indivisible”.
    Can’t seem to pronounce it at all.
    Another: “In God we trust”. I always say “In science we trust”.
    I went to a speech therapist and she said everything was just fine. Turns out she was a fellow atheist.
    Now THAT I trust.

  • Amy

    It was pointed out to me in high school, though, that I say “chews-day” instead of “twos-day”

    English person here, “chews-day” is how we’d say Tuesday!

    My theory is that you can often identify readers by gross mispronounciations combined with a large vocabulary.

    This is my problem, there are several words I mispronounce because I’ve only ever read them, and sometimes I find it difficult to remember the correct pronunciation.

  • A lot of New Jersey folks say frustrated like it was “fuss-trated”. The lack of ‘R’ bothers me. It’s fuss-trating… 😛

  • It was pointed out to me recently that I mispronounce flauccinauccinihilipilification.

    I say flox`-ee-nox`-ee-nee`-hee-lee-pih`-lih-fih-cay-shun apparently it’s flox`-ee-nox`-ee-nee-hee`-lee-pih`-lih-fih-cay-shun. I put the third emphasis in the wrong place.

    Nobody’s perfect.

  • Hemant, you don’t say noo-kyoo-lar, do you?

  • stephanie

    I’m fine with dialectical variation. But words clearly abused drive me nuts. The three that make me want to beat someone about the head with an Oxford’s unabridged are:


    As in; “I’m going to the liberry to study nukular science and Warshington DC history.”

    It’s as if people never actually bothered to look at the poor little letters lined up to form the word.

  • Ada

    I’ve never heard anyone say “Lane-th.” Weird.

    I’ve lived in too many places to get too hung up on accents. I only get bothered when it’s obviously wrong, e.g. “lie-berry” when there is clearly an R after the B, or “pro-NOUN-ci-ation” when there clearly is NOT an O before the U.

    My own accent has adapted based on where I’m living, with a few exceptions, e.g. I refuse to say “lawyer” as “loi-yer.” They practice law, not loi.

  • What really bugs me is folks that put an “R” where it has no right being.

    McCain: Warshington!

  • Chris R

    Hi Hement,

    I’m English (reading your book right now BTW), you sound like me, so I’m good with that. I think mocking can be a bit of a crutch, enough said!


  • Kate

    See, to me the notion that certain common pronunciations – and even whole dialects – are just categorically wrong is exactly the sort of myth that those of us who pride ourselves on our reason ought to approach skeptically. There’s a distinction to be made between words you pronounce differently from some other group of speakers because you’ve only ever read them without hearing anyone else say them, and words that you pronounce differently because you’ve heard the group of speakers you grew up with saying them that way all the time. I’m pretty sure the “mispronunciations” you mention are in the latter category.

    If you were teaching, say, statistics, instead of geometry, I would suggest that you assign your students to go home and ask their parents and friends how they pronounce those words. Record the responses, along with the responder’s ages, and where they grew up. Have them come back to class and compile the data. I guarantee that you would find a lot of variation, and the variation would likely divide fairly neatly along the lines of age and geography. And I bet most of the responders would think their own version was the right one. It would be a nice way to get them and yourself started on thinking critically about the largely unquestioned faith that most people seem to have that there is only one right way to speak and write.

  • MathMike

    Hell, we’re both atheists, right? Perhaps we’re both evil twins.

    So does that mean there are two more twins out there that are more evil than either of us? shudder!

    I had a situation Tuesday that you would appreciate. A couple of young ladies in one of my classes begged me to let them decorate my room for Christmas. I set some rules with them that included things like snowmen, snowflakes, tinsel and the like. They spent about an hour after school the day we left for break hanging all sorts of stuff in the room.

  • Lexi

    As long as you don’t say “hi-th” (height).

    I say lenk-th or leng-th.

    Chewsday is Brittish sounding to me.

    I’ve had teachers that say “supposebly” (instead of supposedly) and “irregardless” (instead of regardless). Those two drove me up a wall.

  • Ulrich:
    This reminds me of a story about one of my Grandmother’s relatives (who I never met) who spoke German. My grandmother told us that once in a restaurant she tried to read the word le-too’-see on a menu. It took them a while to figure out she was sounding out the word lettuce 🙂

    I have also observed the fact that while I have always read a lot, I don’t know how to pronounce a lot of words. I once refered to the north star (Polaris) as Polar’-is instead of Pol-air’-is, much my my father’s amusement.

  • Mark C.

    I kept reading “assuage” and pronouncing it “uh-sewage”… it’s supposed to be pronounced “uh-swage” or “uh-swaj” (with a soft “j”).

    Yeah, it has nothing to do with sewage, obviously, but when my dad heard me say it the way I’d sounded it out from text, he had a good laugh.

  • Just thought of another:

    acquiesce, “mispronounciated” as ah-queese’

  • As a Linguistics major, all I can say is “wow”! You guys sure are judgmental. As you may know, people talking differently is an index of geographic or social variation. There has always been this variation, and there is nothing wrong with it.

    Some speech – i.e., standard, is prestigious. That’s it. And as a school-teacher, your students will demand that you speak the most prestigious register. That just makes sense, as a consequence of the fact that you are an authority figure.

  • Kwayera

    I once refered to the north star (Polaris) as Polar’-is instead of Pol-air’-is, much my my father’s amusement.

    ..it isn’t Polar-is?!

  • AxeGrrl

    My husband and I disagree on Umbrella, Insurance and Thanksgiving. He puts the stress on the 2nd syllables; I put it on the first.

    aaahh…I thought my father was the only one who did that!

    Stop doing it Cindy. Immediately! 🙂


  • AxeGrrl

    Why do so many Americans pronounce ‘Wendy’s’ as if it were ‘WINDy’s’?

  • sc0tt

    rural and February

    I gave up trying to pronounce them properly in regular conversation, and now embrace my inner Iowan.

  • Mathew Wilder

    I like to say “seconably” instead of “secondly” because that’s what Tobias said in one episode of Arrested Development, and I think it’s hilarious.

  • Thats OK. I frequently pronounce “christianity” as “bronze-age superstition”. 🙂

  • ChameleonDave

    Your pronunciations are largely more standard than your students’.

    It is preferable to pronounce the “c” in “picture”, but perfectly acceptable not to in rapid speech.

    “Figure” is indeed pronounced “figger”.

    Both you and your students are mispronouncing the “ng” in “length” as “n”, but that’s no big deal. The fact that they mispronounce the “e” as “ay” is funnier.

    The formal pronunciation of “Tuesday” is “T-yoozday”. It is quite acceptable in ordinary speech to change this “ty-” sound into “ch” (as in “picture”), but turning it into “too” as your students do just sounds comical.

    Disclaimer: I’m fully aware of politically correct linguistics, according to which anything goes and nothing is wrong.

  • Herk

    Don’t feel badly about mispronouncing.

    Aunt. You say: “ahnt” or “awnt.” I say “ant.”

  • Huh. Sounds like you’ve been speaking with an Aussie accent without knowing it. 🙂

  • Oli

    As an Englishman from the South of my fair nation, currently living in the North (Manchester) I try to maintain a fair semblance of the queens english. According to my family though i am picking up northern ways, such as saying “Aye” instead of yes every now and then. The diversity of dialects in the north of england is fascinating with cities only an hour apart having very different sounding accents. Scousers sound nothing like Mancs, who sound nothing like folk from Leeds or Bradford (the pakistani/yorkshire hybrid accent is particularly unusual). And no one understands a damn word the Geordies say.

  • Try out ‘duke’ on them. Some people tend to pronounce it ‘jook’, and others ‘d-yook’.

  • I’m from rural eastern kentucky, and thus have a dialect that is truely my own. I’m guilty of “warsh” and “fixin'”, and even pronounce the days of the week without the “a” (i.e. Sunday becomes “SUN-dee”, Monday is “MUN-dee”, etc.). And I do put emphasis on the first part of a word – like UMbrella. Oh, say hello to the triphthong – flowers is pronounced “flah-irz”. I even live in a “holler”. My husband, who is from Ohio, likes to rag on my pronunciations of words, everything from “boot” to “exponential”.

  • Dysentery

    Well, this thread just wouldn’t be complete without this little gem of a quiz.


  • My dad can’t say “wrench.” He says “ranch”, except for that time we all tried to get him to say it correctly, so he started saying “runch.”

  • Hmm, several of those are only incorrect if you’re assuming American English as your standard, and I suspect in one case it’s also a particular variant of American English. As a British English speaker, I can see your students following me around too in that case…

  • AnonyMouse

    It is Q-pon. 😛 And length is leng-th (but one syllable).

    Over here in the western US, we have a lot of pronunciations that migrated in from the south. Really aggravating ones:

    Treasure becomes TRAY-zhur and pleasure becomes PLAY-zhur. Since these words appear a lot in the Bible, I hear them pronounced that way a *lot*.

    “This year” gets blurred into “thishyeer”.

    Across becomes acrossed (pronounced uh-KROST).

    My dad doesn’t pronounce “wash” as “warsh” – he just says “wush”, rhyming with “whoosh”.

    They also do SUN-dee, MUN-dee, etc. Drives me bonkers.

    And some non-regional ones:

    Question = KWESH-chun instead of KWES-chun

    Mayonnaise = MAY-nays instead of MAY-o-nays

    Exactly = Exackly

    And anyone who cannot pronounce a T as a T drives me up the wall. It’s “tree”, not “chree”. It’s “try”, not “chry”. Etc.

  • My pet peeve is people talking about “mispronunciations” in contexts like this! There seems to be this idea that somewhere there’s a big stone tablet with a list of how to pronounce words in English; deviating from the pronunciations on this tablet is wrong.

    That, of course, is nonsense. Pronunciations vary; you may speak more or less like the majority of English speakers, or more or less like the majority of American/US/Iowan etc. speakers, or more or less like the richest people you know, or the celebrities you admire the most, or your teachers, or your students, or your fellow students, and so on.

    But that’s all there is: variation and other people who you can speak more or less like. You pays your money and you makes your choice!

  • Richard Wade

    There seems to be this idea that somewhere there’s a big stone tablet with a list of how to pronounce words in English; deviating from the pronunciations on this tablet is wrong.

    Actually, it’s not a stone tablet, it’s a dictionary.

    There is a difference between regional accents and poor diction. It is not fair, but you are judged much more quickly by how you speak than by what you say. It takes at least a brief conversation to leave the impression that you are intelligent and sophisticated. It takes only one sentence to give the impression that you are a hick. Poor enunciation or mispronunciations that are associated with ignorant, backward stereotypes can seriously harm your credibility, and you have to work harder to compensate for that. It is like a handicap. George Bernard Shaw’s Professor Henry Higgens had a point: “It’s ‘aoww’ and ‘gaww’ that keep her in her place, not her wretched clothes and dirty face.”

    I had a colleague who was a bright and knowledgeable man with a PhD in Psychology. He pronounced his words in the manner of the inner city ghettos, from which he had heroically emancipated himself. He said things like “ax” for “ask,” and “def” for “death,” and in general he mumbled. It was an impediment, a constant distraction that immediately produced a subtle negative reaction in people whom he was just meeting. He then had to get past that setback that he otherwise would not have faced.

    It should not be enough to just be understood. Your speech has potential power. More than just apes grunting at each other to get a point across, speech, conversation and communication is an art. In any art there is an aspect called craftsmanship. Poor craftsmanship can cancel out the beauty and impact that the art could otherwise have. You don’t have to put on airs and have contrived speech affectations as if you’re an Oxford upper cruster. Just a little practice can remove a handicap to the power of your speech.

  • Efogoto

    Recently, in my forties, I was caught out when reading aloud. The word I read as “uh-SIR-ten” turns out to be that “other” word I heard as “ass-er-TANE” — ascertain.

    Still correcting myself as I read it.

  • Diagoras

    Just go to http://www.answers.com/ They give you the option of hearing the word pronounced.

  • H

    Mayonnaise = MAY-nays instead of MAY-o-nays

    My grandmother says MAY-nays and my grandfather says MAN-nays. They argue about it sometimes, but they don’t get mad. More of a friendly thing.

    I say it normally as do my parents. 🙂

  • There’s something to be said for Richard Wade’s comment. I said:

    But that’s all there is: variation and other people who you can speak more or less like

    Actually there is something else: there are the assumptions people make about you based on how you speak. The reason I didn’t mention this is that it’s implied by the “people who you can speak more or less like”. If you talk like someone from Boston, people will assume you’re from Boston. And it is true that people associate certain pronunciations (sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly) with individuals who have less education. The reason is that educational establishments promote certain pronunciation variants over others, so people who don’t use these variants are assumed to be less educated.

    So when you pays your money, you makes a choice with consequences about what people associate you with. But that’s not the same as mispronunciations. There’s the rub.

    Mumbling and diction are rather different matters, however, and really fall into a quite different category.

    Richard Wade is right that the way we use words influences what they achieve, but this is not a matter of there being a right and a wrong prounciation. It’s a matter of pronouncing things in the most effective way for the context, and the social forces influencing this are subtle.

  • Tom

    Mehta, you’re an Englishman taken from his homeland at birth.

    If you come and stay with us we will offer as much tea as you like.

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