Tag Archives: prescriptivism

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

Words — How do They Work?

After being a human & watching humans for over twenty-three years & also studying them during my time at college, I’ve come to realize that humans love to split hairs over trivial matters. Even though it may not say so on all of our Facebook profiles, it’s definitely one of our most favorite pastimes. And it’s not just an idle craft, the equivalent to crocheting while watching soaps; it’s serious business. I’d even venture to say that it approaches obsessive preoccupation for many people – at least for the vocal ones with Internet access.

With that established, one thing many people (especially ones with Internet ones & blogs like mine) fight about & lose sleep over is language. Our alien observers must know that it’s a big deal to us, language. There are people who really, I mean really, care about grammar & usage & are mortally offended when someone dares to type your when they really mean to say you’re. Oh, & you better be using Oxford commas, you imbecile! And there are those who don’t shut up about the mutable, ever-shifting linguistic sands, & language is in the mouth of its beholders, etc.

There is a never-ending laundry list of language-use issues that people bring up repeatedly with seemingly ever-increasing fervor as people embrace the Internet as the place to go to vent their thoughts (guilty). If you misuse their, there, & they’re you couldn’t be stupider. You must be uneducated if you pronounce so & so a word differently from me. Or is it I? Crap. Send me back to university if I can’t recite Strunk & White verbatim! The worst part is that these arguments are often hateful.

So we have Grammar Nazis & … uhh, enlightened language-hippies? Prescriptivists & descriptivists. Those who seek to draft maps of how language should (logically) work & those who are content to navigate its tangled, uncharted rivers. Okay, maybe my biased language is beginning to show & you’ve figured out that I place myself comfortably within the second camp – the descriptivists, the linguistically enlightened.

Here’s the part where I get really biased & push my side.

I would love to hear less noise about how we should be saying “I’m well” in place of “I’m good.” Largely because those people are, well, more wrong than not. But also because it’s OUR language, not the language of some grammar collecting dust in your university’s library. There are so many people who just have the wrong idea about things. Most dictionary-makers aren’t prescriptivists, yet their words are taken to be the law of the linguistic land by some. It’s as if it’s been forgotten or ignored that the words in the dictionary came from our mouths first & it was those oral actions that gave birth to their more-or-less agreed upon definitions.

There’s way too much hateful attention being paid to language as written, I believe, when it comes to how we speak on the Internet (i.e., informal language). Is it truly that offensive if a person fails to apostrophize contraction it’s, effectively rendering it a possessive its? The horror. I’m almost, almost positive you wouldn’t notice their flub had they been speaking, not writing. And chances are, they can handle it in formal writing. If not, then it’s likely a failure of our education system to teach (note the emphasis on teach) prescriptive rules which oftentimes run contrary to our intuitions about language. In any case, there’s no need for name-calling.

We need more noise from people embracing language’s natural tendencies, OUR natural tendencies – especially from non-linguists. Get the word out! It’s great to me that so many people are indeed enthusiastic about language & how we use it, but not that it means in many cases that such passion is manifested as disgust for fellow humans. We’re all culpable of committing grammatical crimes. And I’ve seen how people hate to be labeled as hypocrites.

At the same time, as someone who has studied evolutionary psychology, I am driven to understand where this behavior comes from. This is just my guess, but I’d venture to say that dialect differences in particular could mark in- versus out-group membership. You don’t speak like me? You can’t be my friend. Furthermore, it’s not impossible that individual differences in language use could serve as markers for intelligence. There’s a reason why you’re asked to know loads of esoteric vocabulary for the GRE.

I don’t want to venture too far down this path because I recognize that evolutionary psychology can be at times a controversial field of study, but I did also want to get those thoughts, however brief, out there for you to mull over. I do invite those who have studied in-/out-group behavior & the relationship between intelligence & linguistic prowess to speak their minds. Though I have a B.A. in psychology & am indeed very interested in human behavior, I consider myself a linguist first & foremost.

As you can tell, this issue of linguistic receptivity is dear to my heart. I don’t just think it’s an interesting measure of individual differences to study – I think it has real-world applicability & must be studied if we are to shed our ignorance about language & encourage diversity & understanding. So everyone go out & learn about language!

Megan L. Risdal

NOTE: For you nerds, this is where the title of this post comes from. I eliminated the obscenity to be nice.


Filed under Linguistics