More Fun with Prescriptivism

Check out this list of the 100 most often mispronounced words & phrases in English. Each “dont-say/do-say” is accompanied by an enlightening comment by an obvious prescriptivist. I’m including some of my favorites here for your enjoyment with my own comments.

For some people, time doesn’t heal all linguistic peeves.

Don’t say: aks | Do say: ask

Comment: This mispronunciation has been around for so long (over 1,000 years) that linguist Mark Aronoff thinks we should cherish it as a part of our linguistic heritage. Most of us would give the axe to “aks.”

A Google search makes it pretty clear that, though cardsharp is the older term, you won’t go misunderstood saying cardshark. Cardsharp yields 197,000 results whereas cardshark gives us a hefty 986,000 by contrast. Using SeeTweet, more people are definitely Tweeting cardshark than they are cardsharp. Wikipedia claims that shark, snark, & sharp are interchangeable based on dialect & region. Interestingly, my spell-check is okay with cardsharp as a word, but it doesn’t recognize cardshark.

Don’t say: card shark | Do say: cardsharp

Comment: Cardsharps probably won’t eat you alive, though they are adept at cutting your purse strings.

Even though I used to work in an optical & witnessed many a patient undergo dilation, I still screwed this one up until I scanned enough “refusal to dilate” forms. There’s something about the /l/ following the /i/ that almost makes a ghost /a/ sound to me even if you’re not explicitly pronouncing an /a/ as you might with the dialate spelling. I don’t know anything about phonetics, though.

Don’t say: dialate | Do say: dilate

Comment: The [i] in this word is so long there is time for another vowel but don’t succumb to the temptation

This one’s interesting to me because ex- & es- ARE the same prefix in this instance, just different renderings, really. At least that’s how I would interpret it. The author does acknowledge that both prefixes do carry the same meaning, despite not considering them to be the same prefix entirely.

Don’t say: excape | Do say: escape

Comment: The good news is, if you say “excape,” you’ve mastered the prefix ex- because its meaning does fit this word. The bad news is, you don’t use this prefix on “escape.”

Hmm, it appears that the OED doesn’t fully agree here. According to the OED, the pronunciation of forte (def. 1) is: /ˈfɔːti//ˈfɔːteɪ/, or formerly /fɔːt/. In any case, I think you’ll get more weird looks than anything if you pronounce this word as “fort.” Wish I could search pronunciations on Google or SeeTweet…

Don’t say: forte | Do say: fort

Comment: The word is spelled “forte” but the [e] is pronounced only when speaking of music, as a “forte passage.” The words for a strong point and a stronghold are pronounced the same: [fort].

I’m including this one because I took a math class last semester & on several occasions my professor would attempt to write the words hierarchy or hierarchical on the board, but she would just pause for a few moments & then resign herself to knowingly spelling it incorrectly. She also tripped over the pronunciation regularly. Even I can admit to having some linguistic peeves.

Don’t say: hi-archy | Do say: hierarchy

Comment: Remember, hierarchies go higher than you might think. This one is pronounced “higher archy” and not “high archy.”

Not sure where the author gets off saying this pronunciation is “incorrect” & “to be avoided.” If it appears with regularity & in patterned distributions in certain dialects, why is it wrong in said dialects?

Don’t say: Laura Norder | Do say: law and order

Comment: The sound [aw] picks up an [r] in some dialects (also “sawr” and “gnawr”). Avoid it and keep Laura Norder in her place.

I would love to hear someone actually pronounce it as prescribed here. I guess I never learned what the rules are about preserving a source language’s pronunciation. Wait, why don’t we pronounce pronunciation with French pronunciation? It’s almost the same word! Or maybe I’m just not understanding what “moved far enough away from French” means. Why do we pronounce Paris with an English/American accent, when I’m sure most of us know the French pronunciation & could safely execute it ourselves? Arbitrary rules!

Don’t say: mawv | Do say: mauve

Comment: This word has not moved far enough away from French to assume an English pronunciation, [mawv], and should still be pronounced [mowv].

And down with napkin, too, god dammit!

Don’t say: nother | Do say: other

Comment: Misanalysis is a common type of speech error based on the misperception of where to draw the line between components of a word of phrase. “A whole nother” comes from misanalyzing “an other” as “a nother.” Not good. Not good.

The comment on this next one just made me laugh. Another prescription based on its French pronunciation? Good luck spreading the word on this one, dear prescriptivist.

Don’t say: zuology | Do say: zoology

Comment: Actually, we should say [zo], not [zu], when we go to the zoo.

Anyway, that’s all I’ve got. Anyone have any other silly prescriptive rules they care to share?

Megan L. Risdal



Filed under Linguistics

4 responses to “More Fun with Prescriptivism

  1. Pingback: Cyrillic Alphabet Pronunciation - LANGUAGE LEARNİNG – LANGUAGE LEARNİNG

  2. Pingback: List Of Common Mispronounced Words - LANGUAGE LEARNİNG – LANGUAGE LEARNİNG

  3. Eric Fuerstenberg

    Here’s another one that I got a kick out of:


    Don’t say: flounder | Do say: founder

    Comment: Since it is unlikely that a boat would founder on a flounder, we should distinguish the verb from the fish as spelling suggests.


    Yeah, they’re right. A boat is unlikely to founder after colliding with a flounder. However, it is possible to flounder (figuratively) in an attempt to point out the mistakes of others.

    Obviously, the individual here has flubbed a bit. While they are technically used to convey slightly different meanings, both flounder and founder are perfectly acceptable when used as verbs. Well, at least sayeth the revered OED and uhh.. this guy:

    Hmm.. citing a prescriptivist to refute the claims of another prescriptivist. There’s got to be something wrong with that, right?

    Anyway, this whole thing got me thinking. And you know, I’ve decided that I’m not really a fan of the whole descriptivist/prescriptivist battle, at least when it is applied to cases like this. Sure, it’s a useful distinction to make when one is deciding how to approach the academic study of language, but in practice isn’t it impossible to take the entirely relativistic position of descriptivism?

    Every forum of communication has its own arbitrary rules that promote mutual understanding (hell, isn’t that what language is anyway?), and we need in-group prescriptivists to teach these rules to those interested in joining the conversation. Take academic writing, for instance. It’s highly stylized (some would say ritualized). Is this, in and of itself, necessarily a bad (or good) thing?

    I’d argue that most budding linguistics get their start in a sort of staunch prescriptivism as they begin to come to terms with the intricate dos and donts of their native language. Sure, they grow out of this stage when they have some formal training under their belts and quickly begin to realize how arbitrary their long-held beliefs have been. It just seems ironically short-sighted that many jump so enthusiastically into a grudge war against the “unenlightened”, a group which may very well consist of future students of linguistics.

    After all, doesn’t it take a fairly strong degree of interest in language to take the time to tell other people how they ought to be speaking it?

    Like, come on guys. Peace and love and all that stuff. No more beating up on prescriptivists. At least not the ones without any sort of formal degree or anything. 😛

    • Maybe you’ll find this Language Log article useful:

      And no, the battle is not over! Haha, but seriously. I’m not trying to bash anyone despite taking a lighthearted tone in this entry. I do admit to having unreasonable peeves about certain uses of language, most definitely. I think it’s because language is all something we own & express in a very personal way with our idiosyncrasies making it the type of debate that anyone can engage in. And of course everyone is fully convinced that their way is the right way.

      Myself, I’m against taking rules of language too far. To the point that people are judged for violating them. And I think that this article takes prescriptivism too seriously. Strongly advising against pronouncing the final “e” in “forte” won’t get anyone anywhere when no one is doing it in the first place. It’s entirely unimportant & nonconstructive.

      The other dangerous thing I found in this article is that many of the prescriptions were targeting linguistic variants that exist in dialects which are associated with a certain region or ethnicity. I don’t think I have to spell out why I think this is a bad thing.

      I do agree with you, though, that many people do experience a budding interest in language in the form of prescriptivism & find passion in abiding strict linguistic & stylistic rules. There’s a sort of beauty in viewing language this way. The thing is, however, that this attitude doesn’t need further encouraging via authoritative figures spreading untruths. That energy is better spent educating.

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