Poll: Correct Me If I’m Wrong

November 3, 2009 at 10:08 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 11 Comments

What do you do?  You’re quite sure your friend just mispronounced a word.  Do you say something?  Do you ignore it?  If you say something, does it make it a bigger deal if you point it out on the spot – like spinach in the teeth – or if you wait and do it later, in private?  If you ignore it, are you in effect damning your friend to years of potential embarrassment?

I have a friend who has mispronounced ‘gesture’ as ‘guess-ture’ as long as I’ve known him, which is over 15 years.  Sadly, it seems to come up in almost every conversation.  Every time he does it, I use it in a reply and pronounce it ‘jess-ture.’  I’ve even tried to tell him, “Honey, you’re saying it wrong,” and he just shrugs me off.  He’s a little flamboyant and I think he just prefers ‘guess-ture.’

On the other hand, I have a coworker who is very dignified and courtly.  He came in one day saying he felt ‘dis-heave-eled.’  I said, “You mean ‘dish-eveled’?”  He stopped and said, “I believe it’s pronounced ‘dis-heave-eled.'”  We went back and forth, deciding finally that neither of us wanted to be wrong and that it would be best to look it up online.  Dictionary.com agreed with me.  I felt really badly because my friend was clearly mortified, and as he’s in his forties, he must have used this favored word of his incorrectly over and over again.  Would it have been better to have pretended not to notice?

Audio books will often have mispronounced words.  I noticed one example in which the narrator changed his pronunciation a couple of disks later.  Evidently the issue had come up but it hadn’t seemed worth the expense or bother to go back and correct the earlier version.  I have to ask whether it’s possible for someone – anyone? – to go over the text and highlight unfamiliar words for the narrator.  Otherwise we audio commuters will go around mis-correcting our own pronunciation, and the very foundations of spoken English will crumble!

I’ve done it myself.  I’ve mispronounced words to the point that many of them are family jokes.  Chi-hooa-hooa for chihuahua; fat-i-gyoo for fatigue; vinn-uhl for vinyl… It’s a really common problem for kids who are big readers.  We encounter words in print that we never hear anyone use in conversation.  Or if we do, like my troubles at six years old with chihuahua, we don’t realize that it’s the same word.

I let it go in business.  How often do we hear per-iphreal or nucyulur?  What happened to the i in verbiage?  Are they joking when they say ‘ambiguish’?

But then there’s personal life.  A friend showed me the list she keeps of other people’s speech errors.  One of her examples of ‘fake words’ was actually a word:  orientate.  I said as much, and she and my other friend gave each other a look that I read as “what a jerk.”  We’ve also had a debate over whether it’s correct to say ‘an historian.’  I realize this is becoming antiquated and it’s more of a Britishism, but I feel I can use the older form when I like because, hey!  I have a bachelor’s in history.  I remember my ex-husband and I had to consult the dictionary over the correct pronunciation of ‘segue.’  He felt he’d won when we discovered that both pronunciations were equally valid.  I still prefer the French pronunciation, but in speech I say ‘seg-way’ and I wince every time, thinking of his unmerited scorn.

Probably I am a jerk.  The majority of the time, when I hear a word misused in some way, I keep it to myself, as when I recently heard ‘banal’ pronounced to rhyme with ‘anal’ instead of ‘canal.’  I’m quite sure I do it without flinching or making a face.  At home, my man Rocket Scientist and I had a discussion, and he asked me to make sure to correct him, but we acknowledge that it’s a strain sometimes.  I understand that people don’t like to be corrected, especially when it’s a family Scrabble game and I’m forced to challenge something that is definitely not a real word.  Do people really prefer to remain in the dark, though?  Let’s hear your response.

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11 Comments »

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  1. I used to correct people all the time. I’ve softened since then, though. I still cringe when I recall some of the times I was corrected as a child. It was definitely Reader Syndrome, I was familiar with the words on the page, but didn’t encounter them much in speech.

    I think whether a person should be corrected might depend on how close your relationship is with that person. I probably don’t want to be corrected in public, in front of other people. If I’m just in conversation with a close friend, I’d want to know I was saying/using a word incorrectly.

  2. Since I’m the one who looked at you like you were a jerk, allow me to defend myself. 🙂

    I HATE mispronouncing words. And yes, I would appreciate if someone told me I was mispronouncing a word simply by saying it back to me. But I guess it all depends on what kind of an attitude you have when correcting someone. Correcting someone isn’t a small thing and must be done with the right attitude and intention. Please understand I’m not commenting on the way you’ve corrected me. I’m just saying that correcting someone is a delicate matter. You can come off as a know-it-all and rude, and really, is that how you want to be seen?

    As far as orientate, I was surprised to think that I might have been wrong, not because I’ve never been wrong, but only because it seemed to be so logical that orientate is the wrong form of orient. My research showed that orientated is acceptable in Britain, but it’s a form of the word that came later. Also, if you look at the root word, orient, and conjugate it, orientated doesn’t even come in to the picture. I never said orientate isn’t a word. Orientate seems to come from orientation, which is not how things are done in the English language.

    Sorry for such a long comment, but you called me out! 🙂

    • Oops, sorry, I didn’t mean to imply it was your ‘fake words’ list. You just happened to be there that day. The ‘we’ was in the sense of ‘same group of friends.’ I didn’t mean to call you out, either – I tried to keep it anonymous and use several different people as examples.

      The impetus behind this article was partly to raise the topic for discussion, but mostly to see whether I personally do tend to come across as rude and condescending. It’s not my intention! I don’t know if there’s a way to do it at all without bruising someone’s ego at least a little bit. I’m just wrestling with the idea of whether to swear off correcting people completely, or continue to see it as a sort of gentle public service, however mistaken that might be.

      I see correcting someone’s speech in the same way as telling someone she had a leaf in her hair. I wouldn’t necessarily stop a stranger on the street, but it would be weird if I didn’t do it for my friends.

  3. I correct some people and not others. I always correct my kids. You’re right in that big readers mispronounce words because they’ve never heard them. My kids do that and I used to when I was little.

    I think it depends on who you’re talking with. I probably correct 40% in general, but 95% of family and very close friends.

  4. I prefer to be corrected- there are so many words I’ve only come across in my reading, and am then later mortified to find I’ve been mispronouncing in speech. The only one I constantly disagree with my husband on is measure. I pronounce it “may-shure” and he says it’s “meh-shure”. I’ve heard it correctly on the online dictionary, but I still always say it wrong. That one’s really deeply rooted.

  5. *sigh* I think the ones who need it the most are the ones most reluctant to hear it. I have a friend, similar to your “gestures” friend, who will mispronounce a word and then somehow manage to use it about 15 times during the course of a dinner; but it’s almost always a different word every time. After not correcting her the first one or two times, you feel like a jerk if you try to correct her later after having let her say it incorrectly so many times already. Even when we have tried to correct her in the past, she blames it on the small town where she grew up, where “everybody” pronounces it that way. It’s not an accent, it’s just wrong! And so aggravating!

    So, yes, I would rather have someone correct me if I’m pronouncing something wrong, but I would hope they would do it gently. I like your method of responding with a sentence that contains the word in question, using your pronunciation. If it’s family or close friends I will try to correct, otherwise, I’ll usually just let it go.

    (Also, I was on board with the “Orientate is not a word!” crowd for years. I still don’t think it sounds right, but who am I to argue with Merriam Webster?)

  6. I never correct adults – though I don’t mind being corrected myself. I am a volunteer docent at my local zoo, and a certain staff member mis-pronounces the words Spectacled Bear – she says “speckaled bear” and it irritates me every time. In fact, this is kind of a catharsis for me, complaining about it here since I would never presume to correct a staff member!

    I am also a substitute teacher and I never hesitate correct a child in my classroom 🙂

    • I agree – I would never consider correcting someone at work. But for kids, it’s just the way they learn language. *Someone* has to teach them the rules!

  7. I’ve been biting my tongue recently…a coworker mispronounces Roget as raw-jet. We both read a biography of the man. The funny thing is that in the preface, pronounciation of his name is addressed: It’s roh-zhay.

  8. I keep it to myself too. Because you know sometimes there really is no correct or wrong pronounciation. For e.g In India, you’ll find equal no. of people using both the pronounciations for the word gesture.

    Sometimes, there is a British way,,an American way or some other way to pronounce the same word.

    • That’s another good point. We studied World Englishes in college – the idea that correct English varies from place to place. You know, English started in England, but the British are outnumbered by Americans – so if there’s a difference between British English and American English, who is right? If more people speak English in China than either the UK or the US, and they have a different usage, who is right? It’s a fascinating question.

      I would never dream of correcting a non-native speaker unless asked. I’m so impressed by anyone who even attempts to use a second language that I’ll do my best to understand and communicate no matter what.


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