A review of a new book that tells you how to pronounce words
Nobody likes being corrected but that never seems to stop us from doing it to each other. I am a huge offender of this pretty annoying habit, particularly when it comes to spelling. And yet somehow people call me a “grammar queen” or “grammar nerd” or some other sweetly derisive term for a fucking pedant. What annoys me about this is that grammar chiefly refers to the structural ways that words are put together in sentences, not which order the letters go in and which ones are used. But it’s too late for that distinction—most people today use the word “grammar” as an umbrella term to mean “stuff that’s wrong in the writing.” “Can you take a quick look at this for grammar mistakes etc.?” Yes, yes I can. I can take a look or give it a look, whichever you prefer.
So I understand the impetus for this project by Ross Petras and Kathryn Petras, the brother–sister team behind a new book, You’re Saying it Wrong: A Pronunciation Guide to the 150 Most Commonly Mispronounced Words and Their Tangled Histories of Misuse. In the introduction, they report, that 47 percent of Americans are “irritated” by mispronunciations and correct people (millennials are the worst offenders, at 63 percent). In Britain, they say, “a whopping 41 percent go on the attack and stop a conversation to correct someone else. Thus this book.” Setting aside cultural differences, that is essentially a non sequitur. It’s not clear what they mean by “thus”—is this book a weapon for those forty-some percent to wield, or is it a prophylactic for further embarrassment and shame?
There is a distinct reaction—almost a tactile feeling—people have when being corrected in public, of wanting to shrug you off or flick you away, as though you were a gnat or some sort of persistent moth. It’s unpleasant, and though they know you’re harmless and not setting out to hurt them, they’d just like you to please go away and let them do the wrong thing in peace. You’d think that discomfort would be enough to stop monsters like me, but we feed off of that escalation, and we come right back.
In practice, the book is largely an exercise in this same kind of tension, but drawn out and in slow motion. And just as you feel frustrated with a person who wants to correct you, you might find petty reasons to feel frustrated with this book. First of all, what even constitutes a mispronunciation? They’ve included misusages, mishearings, and malapropisms. For many words that have two dueling pronunciations, they give you both (neesh and nitch), There are foreign words that have been bastardized into English—how do we decide where the French stops and the English begins (OO-vruh vs. əv-ruh for oeuvre)? What about words that so many people pronounce wrong that the “wrong” sound has won out over “right” (comptroller vs. controller)? The Petrases acknowledge these inconsistencies, calling English a “growing language,” as though it were an eight-year-old boy finishing off a whole pack of pudding.
In this morass, see the need for guidelines, or lines of some sort. “Some dictionaries are very, shall we say, exuberant,” they write, in including so many possible pronunciations. They’re here to streamline, and “present the preferred pronunciations,” the ones most linguists and dictionaries and Americans agree with. While the Petrases are not linguists, they did consult a lot of dictionaries and other sources, and their book is by no means comprehensive. It’s an alphabetical, arbitrary selection of only a hundred and fifty words that they curated, with a lot of the ones you’d expect, and some that feel like they were chosen because they were Ross’s favorite. How often do you see, much less speak, the word sidereal (sye-DEER-ee-uhl)? And is it OFF-ten or OFF-in?
In fact, that’s my main criticism of this book, which is that it’s done by enthusiasts, but not professionals. Their pronunciation guide spellings, though non-technical and intended to be accessible, can be confusing. One way the Petrases could have improved this book vastly would have been to introduce their readers to “the dreaded schwa”—the upside-down e that basically means “any weird ‘ehh’ or ‘uhh’ sound”: ə. It’s the spelling bee contestant’s worst nightmare and trickster of many a Francophobe. You don’t have to go full International Phonetic Alphabet, but you can assume some level of dorky interest on the part of your reader if you’re going to give them a booklet full of actuallies.
The book is a hundred and eighty or so pages, with one word per page, and a few interstitial lists of largely proper nouns (art-world names, brand names, philosophers) that are commonly mispronounced. Philip Gourevitch is included on a list of “Great Minds” with Max Weber and Simone Weil, but Ed Ruscha somehow didn’t make a list of art-world luminaries along with Diane Arbus and Paul Klee. They want you to pronounce “buoy” like boy and restore the first ‘r’ sound in prerogative, because Latin.
The inclusion of true landmines like GIF and oeuvre are at once obvious and maddening—you have to include these words but no one wants to talk about them anymore. They’ve got the full sentence “I could care less” [eye cood care less], and the non-word “irregardless” [ri-GARD-lis]. For some reason the state of Oregon is included, but not Nevada. WHO MISPRONOUNCES OREGON? (Ed note: I’ve actually heard this a lot on the west coast). They tell us to pronounce liqueur as [li-KERR], which is of no help, because no one knows how to say Miranda Kerr’s last name—I just asked three people and I got three different answers: cuhr, car, care.
The best way to consume this book is in a room full of people who are from different parts of the country and have good senses of humor. Ask them how they pronounce each word that doesn’t seem obvious. Let the frustration and laughter and discussion ensue.