(Editor’s note: This was one of the top viewed stories of 2014. We’re rerunning it as part of a look back at the articles that captivated our readers the most.)
This article first appeared on Primer.com.
Don’t worry, I won’t waste your time with the elementary school lessons about how to accurately pronounce “library,” “February,” or “arctic”—although I will note that if you’re discussing a library and still dropping the first “r,” there’s a very good chance that your friends and/or colleagues are laughing behind your back.
I won’t trouble you with a lecture covering how some of the words you use actually aren’t words at all. If you’re using words like “snuck,” “brang,” or “irregardless” (none of those are real words), an article—much less one written by me—is not going to solve your problems.
What I will do is offer up a rudimentary form of help, in terms of how to properly pronounce relatively common words that are bound to show up in your daily life. These tips will not seal the deal in a job interview or on a date (I can especially vouch for the “date” scenario), but if mispronunciation has been a potential chink in your armor, your problems will soon be solved.
Thus, behold, People of the Internet… the 10 most-important words you should learn to pronounce, if you would like to appear reasonably knowledgeable about your own language.
- Incorrect pronunciation: ath – a – leet
- Correct pronunciation: ath – leet
This may prove especially helpful during the Summer Olympics, but it is a very valuable lesson for any sports season. It applies to “athlete” and any derivative (biathlon, triathlon, decathlon, etc.) and, honestly, I’m sad that I even have to point this out: There is no vowel between the “h” and the “l” in any of these words. There never has been. Let the dream die.
2. Escape/espresso/et cetera
- Incorrect pronunciation: ex – cape / ex – presso / ex – set – err – uh
- Correct pronunciation: ess – cape / ess – presso / ett – set – err – uh
Yes, a three-for-one deal, but only because this one is dually very common and very simple to fix. For some reason, we of the English tongue have an obsession with changing any “s” to an “x” if it follows an “e” sound; call it the Exxon Indoctrination. These words are spelled phonetically. Let’s try to respect that.
Also: the yuppie kids will really respect you if you master “espresso” and “et cetera”—what more motivation do you need?
- Incorrect pronunciation: nuke – you – lerr
- Correct pronunciation: new – clee – err
All right, so, although it’s 2012 and we have a president who—ahem—pronounces it correctly, this is a word with which we’re somehow still struggling. Like most of the words on this list, “nuclear” is spelled exactly as it is supposed to be pronounced.
- Incorrect pronunciation: purr – scrip – shun / purr – ogg – uh – tiv
- Correct pronunciation: pre – scrip – shun / pre – rogg – uh – tiv
Overlooking the fact that many people also seem to have precisely no idea as to the latter word’s true definition (I’ve had several conversations where people bizarrely substitute “prerogative” for words like “agenda”), this is another problem that can be attributed to ignorance in the arena of Sound It Out, You Lummox. The “r” comes before the “e” in both of these words. Please ercognize this erality. Sorry.
- Incorrect pronunciation: up – most
- Correct pronunciation: utt – most
In a bizarre twist, people actually became so certain of this word’s meaning that they altered its pronunciation to reflect that definition. Yes, “utmost” is an adjective synonymous with “greatest” (a term that immediately calls to mind some tangible Mount Olympus-type of vertical hierarchy and the word “upper”), but that second letter? It’s still a “t.”
- Incorrect pronunciation: can – uh – dett
- Correct pronunciation: can – da – dett
Mastering this word will help you at least sound educated in your excruciating political debates as we get fully into primary season. I cannot explain it any more simply than my second-grade teacher once did: “You always want to have a good candidate for your candy date.” Candy date. It’s sweet and simple.
- Incorrect pronunciation: sherr – berrt
- Correct pronunciation: sherr – bet
This is one of those words that ultimately had to abandon its crusade for righteousness and now has been corrupted to the point where dictionaries may list the incorrect pronunciation as acceptable because of how rampant the ignorance grew to be. But there’s only one “r” in “sherbet,” America. No matter how awesome the rainbow flavors are, there’s still only one “r.”
- Incorrect pronunciation: aww – ree
- Correct pronunciation: uh – rye
Until very recently, I could not even conceive a situation where someone would mispronounce this word; it always seemed very simple to me. However, I heard three different people—in the world of talk radio, no less—pronounce it inaccurately over the span of a few months. It’s like the mechanism that enables people to speak in an educated fashion went awry. (See what I did there?)
9. For all intents and purposes
- Incorrect pronunciation: “for all intensive purposes”
- Correct pronunciation: “for all intents and purposes”
All right, yes, I cheated a little bit here (for posterity’s sake, I should note that a phrase and a word are not the same thing), but this is still a very popular pronunciation mistake and one that I really feel must be addressed in a public forum. Though “intensive” is absolutely a word, the clichéd saying that most people are trying to channel is all about intent. As for the rumor that I, as a younger man, frequently employed the incorrect pronunciation—no comment.
- Incorrect pronunciation: off – ten
- Correct pronunciation: off – en
If there is a bigger red flag for “I am misinformed about how to pronounce something” in our language, I have yet to encounter it. This word and its evolutionary course in American vernacular could be a cultural study unto itself.
For a while, nobody was aware that the “t” was silent; this sneaky caveat had to be beaten into our brains for years and years in school. But then—in what can best be described as the greatest grammatical epiphany since someone decided that we needed a contraction to turn “I am” into a single word—people seemed to universally scream out “We get it! A silent ‘t’!” It was a glorious day.
However, this euphoria was ultimately fleeting. At some point, the rational people of Earth decided to flip over the Buffet Table of Reason at the Banquet for Intellectual Hope and thought it best to, once again, simply start pronouncing the “t” in “often.” I do not know whether this was brought on by an innate human desire to flout the rules of our world or just a collective hatred for all things associated with the establishment, but it is now arguably the most frequent linguistic speed bump in the history of hyperbole. And I would like to lead the charge to restore balance.
Justin Brown is a writer and artist living in Virginia. He channels most of his mind’s molten river of creativity into his blog Esteban Was Eaten! For even more information about him, check out his website.