Mischievous and grievous

Posted by on August 18, 2009

© Pressmaster / Fotolia.comAre you a practical joker? Is April Fools Day your favorite day of the year? Are you accused of being devilish, impish, naughty, puckish, rascally, or mischievous?

If you feel like you’re on top of the world and want to cause some mischief, you might say that you’re mischievous. I have been accused of being mischievous on many occasions. My friends don’t seem to use it with an endearing tone, but I think it’s part of my charm.

Mischievous is a word I enjoy using. Many others do too, but they don’t seem to pronounce it the way that I do. In fact, most of the times I hear this word it sounds incorrect to me. Have these speakers been taught incorrectly or are they simply causing mischief with their peevish pronunciation?

The chief offenders of my ears are (who else?) young people. I couldn’t give you an exact age range, but I would guess 30 and younger.

When hearing the word aloud, the pronunciation is most often /miss CHEE vee uhs/. I’m not usually grumpy about language matters and I enjoy variations of many kinds, but this word – pronounced in this way – really rubs me the wrong way. Perhaps I’m becoming prematurely curmudgeon-ish.

Take a closer look at how mischievous is spelled. Notice that there is no ‘i’ after the ‘v’. All the dictionaries I have access to list the standard pronunciation as /MIS chih vuhs/. But who looks in the dictionary for pronunciations these days anyway?

I noticed a similar mistake in the word grievous. Some pronounce it as /GREE vee uhs/ instead of /GREE vuhs/. I also found many results on Google and Twitter of individuals spelling the words as they pronounce them: mischivious, mischievious, mischevious, and grevious. I started looking for answers. Why do people say and spell these words like this?

I put my interviewer hat on and decided to gather information myself. The interviewer hat is stylish, yet invisible, and makes me feel like a real interviewer. I held up a paper printed with the words mischievous and grievous and asked my interviewees to pronounce them. Very few gave me the dictionary pronunciation. I also asked for the pronunciation of a couple unfamiliar words that I thought might yield a similar result: pursuivant /pur SWEE vuhnt/ (noun an attendant, follower, or herald) and puissance /PYOO uh suhns or PWEE suhns/ (adjective power or might).

As I expected, many people pronounced pursuivant as pursuviant /pur SOO vee uhnt/, moving the ‘i’ from before to after the ‘v’. I didn’t have as much luck with puissance. All I learned is that people don’t know the word, don’t know how to pronounce it, and are very reluctant to try.

Is it something about the letter ‘v’ that makes us want to put an ‘i’ after it? The words devious and previous come to mind. Those are two words that I feel are more firmly rooted into people’s vocabulary than mischievous and grievous. Perhaps familiarity with the –evious words have influenced people’s pronunciation of –ievous words. It could also be that most people hear the word from their peers and have no reason to believe that it’s incorrect. After all if your friends say it, it must be right.

Next time you hear /mihs CHEE vee uhs/ you can say, “Oh, that’s interesting. I’ve always heard it /MIS chih vuhs/,” and then you both open a dictionary to make sure.

The moral: consult your dictionary every now and then. Make sure you’re not mispronunciating anything.

Further writing from Gedaly Guberek can be found at On Words and Upwards!

Read more about common errors in English.

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