How to Pronounce English Words: Some Common Mistakes

How to Pronounce English WordsAs many already know, the English language is full of words with myriad pronunciations, most of which are incorrect but often used. Mispronouncing words can tarnish important first impressions and destroy someone’s confidence.  Our courses here at Udemy can work on subtle variations and ultimately help you achieve a more confident way of speaking. An Introduction to English Pronunciation provides you with what you need to get started.

Old Habits Don’t Die Hard

Here are some examples of words we innocently butcher on a regular basis:

address, almond, amen, arctic, aunt, banal, Caribbean, diabetes, either, envelope, harassment, herb, homage, mayonnaise, neither, niche, nuclear, pajama, potato, produce (as in produce department), schedule, tomato, Uranus

The above are words you can hear pronounced in two different ways in the same part of America. For either and neither, Americans and our English speaking counterparts from acrss the Atlantic can be found using each pronunciation, and both have some historical basis. We would expect it to be “ee” going by historical patterns, but the “eye” version came to be preferred in London, which made it the higher-class version.

Aunt is another one that’s pronounced differently depending on where you’re from: If you say it “ahnt” you’re probably from Britain or a small part of the U.S.  The truth is, most pronunciation differences come from Brits handling a word one way and Americans handling it another — and then the British pronunciation getting used in the U.S. as well (and sometimes vice versa). Then when it sticks in the U.S., both pronunciations are carried out as if that was the norm.

Nuances from the Latin and Greek words of old have also had major influences in what pronunciations carry weight in the English language. If a vowel is “long”, the British have normally used the English “long” equivalent — which is so different from the Latin or Greek because our “long” vowels have changed. For example, we used to say long a as “ah” but it moved up to “eh,” long e went from “eh” to “ee,” and long i went from “ee” to “eye.” So a word such as amen — which came from Hebrew by way of Latin — saw its long a change from “ah-men” to “eh-men.” But everyone in other countries, including in a lot of music, still used “ah-men,” so it didn’t go away.

Likewise, the long e at the end of the word diabetes sounds like “ease,” but many people, especially in the U.S., have reduced it to “iss.” But if, to try to stave off diabetes, you head to the produce department, how you say the name of it will be influenced by different precedents: The noun produce was originally stressed on the second syllable like the verb produce, and when the stress shifted, the o kept a “short” sound. But it somehow gained a “long” sound to match all the other words that start with pro. Some people have gone another step and reduced the second vowel from the “you” sound to its “short” version, as in “us.” So many variations! No wonder the English language is notorious for being difficult.

Spelling Can Mess Things Up Too

Ambiguous spelling is a common factor. Consider Caribbean. Even in the Caribbean, some people say the name with the stress on the first syllable, and some with the stress on the second. We do know that the version with the stress on the first syllable is the older one; the second-syllable-stress version likely gains traction from the double b in the spelling. But that pronunciation has been around long enough that it’s established and accepted.

Before you say that the older version has to be the only correct one, perhaps you should know that that position commits you to dropping the l in falcon and almond — in both cases it was added later but is accepted now. Oh, and schedule? In English (which got it from Old French) it used to becedule, not “sh” or “sk” but “s”… which is completely wrong now. A few centuries ago it was respelled and repronounced on the basis of the Latin schedula, which the French got it from.

And then there are some words that have gained common “wrong” pronunciations due to normal change processes over time — mainly speakers’ tongues going with what is easier in their accent. The mayonn in mayonnaise gets leveled out to “man”; the arct in arctic gets simplified to “art”; and, perhaps most famously, in nuclear the tongue keeps the same overall movement pattern but shifts a consonant so there’s a more even — and easier-to-say — alternation: “nucular.” All of these attract scorn now.

But just remember this: If the words bright, thrill, and ask had their vowels and consonants in the same order as they were in Old English, we would now be saying them as “birght,” “thirl,” and — yes — “aks.” Sometimes the “wrong” version sticks.

To speak articulately and enunciate words correctly is a skill that’s often overlooked, being brushed aside in favor of the ever-popular short form. Text messaging, emailing, shorthand slang and overall laziness are perpetuating a decline in the art of the spoken word.

A Few More Quirks

One favorite word with divided speakers is “jewelry.” Do you pronounce it jool-ree or joo-luh-ree? The answer is: avoid the addition of extra syllables. For some reason, people feel that in order to pronounce words correctly they need to elongate and pronounce out every couple letters which isn’t the case. Words like dilate (dehy-leyt), athlete (ath-leet), realtor (reel-ter), and triathlon (trahy-ath-luhn) all fall victim to syllable sloppiness.

Next on my list is the phrase “all intents and purposes.” NOT “all intensive purposes.” Admittedly, this isn’t a problem of mispronunciation, but it’s an error so common that excluding it would be nothing short of criminal. Knowing your expressions is all about attention to detail: It’s “dog eat dog world,” not “doggy dog world”; it’s “Alzheimer’s disease,” not “old-timer’s disease”; and it’s “Ku Klux Klan,” not “Klu Klux Klan.” These fall in line with those discussed above in the degree of an overly annoying indifference to preserving those words of the English language we know only have one correct way of pronouncing.

Last but not least, let’s look at the word “often.” A lot of indivduals will pronounce it out as awf-tuhn.  But the correct pronunciation is where the “t” is silent: aw-fuhn. Don’t try to overemphasize your knowledge of spelling and think that by uttering every letter you know how to pronounce words correctly; when you do this, you come across as an ignoramus. The beauty of the English language shines once again, exposing intricacy through the use of silent letters: soften (saw-fuhn), handsome (han-suhm) and handkerchief (hang-ker-chif or -cheef). And for all of you keeping score at home — anyway does not have an “s” on the end, silent or other.

Language is an ever-evolving being, and often, those mispronounced, misspelled or misguided words or sayings wiggle their way into today’s lexicon, making it increasingly difficult to know what’s right, what’s acceptable and what’s flat-out wrong. Take the word “data,” for example. Data is meant to be used only in the plural; however, its use in the singular has become so common that dictionaries are now beginning to recognize the singular usage as acceptable. The point is this: There’s a right way and a wrong way, but sometimes, the wrong way is still acceptable — but just a little less right.

For more information on pronouncing words in English, see:

American English for Success in Business

English Pronunciation I: Consonant Sounds