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I now pronounce you … Wait, how do I pronounce you?

© Photodisc / Getty ImagesAs a young boy in primary school I was once asked to read aloud a passage that contained the word fatigue. I had heard the word once or twice but had never seen it in print before, and didn’t make the connection between the faintly familiar sound and the unfamiliar French letter-pattern. So I ploughed on with a literal pronunciation, “fatty-goo”, to the great amusement of classmates.

My teacher gently corrected me, and I finished reading the specified text a shade pinker. It was an early lesson in the disparity between English spelling and pronunciation. I see similar stories all the time; just last week I read a tweet from an editor who said she’d been mispronouncing desultory all her life. I’m sure she’s not the only one.

Pronunciation is a source of constant controversy – and is it controversy or controversy? Macmillan Dictionary includes both pronunciations, and indeed the two forms are legitimate. This point is sometimes missed: people assume there can be just one right way, when in fact there is often more than one. Geography and register may be factors in whether a particular pronunciation of a word is perceived to be correct or appropriate.

A recent humorous article in the Irish Times commented on the social and religious aspects of pronouncing aitch in Northern Ireland. It prompted a flurry of letters on the subject, several of them condemning the proliferation of h-sounds in places the writers considered wrong – including the name of the letter itself. As a cultural shibboleth it elicits extreme feelings: @miche on Twitter told me that as a child he was hit with a plank by another child for getting a h-sound “wrong”. J. D. O’Connor, in his book Phonetics, regretted:

that one pronunciation should confer social advantage or prestige and that another should bear a stigma. It would be much more equitable if we could all pronounce in our native way with no feelings of guilt or smugness, of underdog or overdog.

It certainly would. Yet witness the recent hubbub over GIF, after its inventor insisted it be pronounced “jif”. He has no business insisting. Some people say GIF with a hard g, others with a soft g, some say each letter, and so on. None of these is wrong or inferior; the truth is, you can pronounce GIF however you like. But for fatigue I cannot recommend “fatty-goo”.

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About the author


Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.


  • This post brought back some of my own reading-aloud memories from primary school. At one point, a good friend was asked to read a paragraph that cruelly and unusually contained the familiar word “depot” and the then-unfamiliar “despot”. I still think that was an unfair pairing.

  • Michele: That seems like the kind of exercise designed to catch students out. Education through embarrassment, maybe!

  • Stan:
    I recall your comment about “fatigue” on my post. I think the greater issue, as you mentioned, is that English words have multiple pronunciations, often based on whether they’re used as verb or noun (as well as other considerations). I imagine it’s one of the most difficult aspects of the language for foreign leartners, when, for example, they have to deal with pronunciations like “record,” (noun), and “record,” (verb).

    To your first point; I happened to watch a movie recently, where Sean Connery referred to a urinel (yur-INE-el); of course, in America, we pronouce it yur-in-ul.

  • Marc: Yes, that’s very true. Word stress can be very tricky for learners, and English has its share of such ambiguity. I hadn’t noticed the US/UK difference in pronouncing urinal before.

  • Regional accents make things even worse. My stepchildren were raised in South Carolina and Mississippi. When they were young, “pin”, “pen” and “pan” were all pronounced the same way: “pay-un”.

  • “Desultory” has another possible pronunciation, too, with a secondary stress on “tor”, at least according to other dictionaries. Now what’s weird is that all the dictionaries I consulted say this word should be pronounced with an “s” sound, but when I play the British pronunciation, I keep hearing a “z”…

  • Natalia: yes, you’re right. There is an alternative pronunciation with secondary stress on the third syllable. This is possible in American English, though highly unlikely in British English. As for the /s/ or /z/ sound; the recording of the British voice definitely says /z/ while the American actor says /s/. There is rather more variation in the way Brits pronounce it, and in this case the actor went for /z/ rather than /s/. Thanks for raising this – we’ll look into adding the /z/ pronunciation as a variant on the British version.

  • Michele: Mergers can require some deciphering all right.

    Edward: French again! I figure it catches most children out at some point in their early learning lives.

  • My manager prides herself in her high education but insists on pronouncing “envelope” with the “en” of “ending” rather than with “on”. Which is correct? I was always tutted at by my teacher and told it was “on”velope and “only the uneducated say “en”velope”.

  • I was called out by a cousin for pronouncing patina ‘pateena’ and told it was ‘patt’na’. I was about 18 and my pride was hurt. I later wished I had told her I didn’t have the stameena for that kind of nonsense.

  • For many years as a child, I believed there was a verb in English with a past form pronounced ‘my-zuld’. I had read the word ‘misled’ many a time, and heard people saying they had been ‘miss-led’, but never realised they were the same word.

  • Francesca: Both pronunciations are common and standard; neither, as far as I know, implies anything about educational status.

    Elizabeth: Patina is easily mispronounced – similar words like marina and Latina suggest second-syllable stress. I like your comeback, even if it did come too late!

    Penny: Misled has misled so many others that it gives its name to the very phenomenon you describe – phonologically misanalysed words are known as “misles“.

  • It’s not a mispronunciation as such, but I was once roundly mocked by my sister for asking for capiscums (instead of capsicums) in a greengrocer’s. Of course what she was really mocking was my pretentiousness, because any normal person would have asked for peppers. In my defence, I’d probably been reading too many cookery books. Anyway, she has never let me forget it.

  • Francesca: In his Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, John Wells includes the results of an ‘Opinion Poll’, in which he asked speakers of British English for their “preferred” pronunciation of about 100 words which have alternative pronunciations. One of these words was ‘envelope’, and in the first edition of 1990 the result was a 78% vote for ENvelope and 22% for ONvelope. This has to be taken with a sprinkling of salt, because the number of respondents was only 275, and it’s quite likely that they weren’t entirely representative of the population at large, and it’s quite possible that some people’s “preferred” pronunciation isn’t the one they actually use, etc., etc. In any case, it doesn’t mean that ENvelope is 56% better than ONvelope, of course. Unfortunately I haven’t got immediate access to a more recent edition of the LPD – maybe some other reader of this blog has? My guess would be that the pronunciation with EN has increased its share of the vote – this is, after all, the pronunciation suggested by the spelling – as residual awareness of French (the source of the ON pronunciation) has continued to crumble among the British public.

    When I was at school, in one lesson, one poor lad in our class was reading a passage of text aloud, and read that someone or something was “ENveloped in mist”. I was foggily aware of the verb ‘enVELop’, and joined in the ensuing mirth, but became aware at that moment, for the first time, that there was any connection of meaning between enVELop and ENvelope. That was a moment of education for me.

  • Liz: Marvellous. What are siblings for, if not to keep us in check by reminding us of past failings?

    Jonathan: Thanks for the data from LPD. I’ve noticed, while editing, that envelope (n.) vs. envelop (v.) catches quite a few writers out; your anecdote is a nice illustration of the difference and the moment of its realisation.

  • This is like the pronunciation of the province where I live – Newfoundland, Canada. In the US (where I come from) it is pronounced “NEWfnlnd.” Once you arrive in Canada, people around you refer to “NewFOUNDlnd.”

    But when you get here, it is “newfnLAND.”

    Ever one to assimilate (at least in a few minor respects), I now pronounce it like the locals. Elsewhere in Canada, people regularly correct me, and tell me I’m pronouncing it wrong. In the US, they have no idea where I’m talking about – but then, they probably wouldn’t even if I pronounced it in the US way, given average knowledge of geography down there. So I’m sticking with the local pronunciation.

    UnderSTAND? NewfoundLAND!

  • Even worse than urinal is the planet Uranus, where you have the choice of stressing the first syllable, making it a homophone of urinous; or the second, which gives rise to the joke about “there are Klingons orbiting Uranus”. Some people try to dodge this by saying “Urannus”, with /æ/, but this rarely sticks for long.

  • I remember two moments of pronunciation embarrassment of school, being ridiculed by teachers who I now know were treating their peeves as defining correctness, where equally correct variants exist in UK English : once by the English teacher for pronouncing “lichen” as “liken” (he said it was “litchen”); the other by the biology teacher for pronouncing “vitamin” as “vit-amin” (she said it was “vite-amin” on grounds of etymology).

  • Ray Girvan – the “vit-amin” vs. “vite-amin” is a regional distinction – in North America it is definitely “vite-amin.” Lichen, however, does NOT rhyme with kitchen in North America!

    I really pity people who have to learn English as a second language. The pronunciation / spelling issues are a nightmare!

  • In my early twenties, I discovered I had been pronouncing foliage and prowess wrong all my life. My versions were foil-age and prow-ness.

    As a child in Derry, my other half read a lot but unfortunately didn’t get to meet many exotically-named girls. Imagine his horror on meeting his first Penelope to discover it wasn’t pronounced Pen-elope,

  • I am a bit disappointed in your ascertain that the inventor of GIF cannot determine how the word /acronym is pronounced. Surely he has some input? Without him there would be no word or acronym. Furthermore, if there is some flexibility in the way words are pronounced, can you explain to me why ‘fatty goo’ cannot be pronounced so yet other words can be pronounced with differing stress and phonetic sounds? Please don’t say that this is because it is of French origin, posh people say rest’rant and others say rester rant and there are other pronunciations.

  • Jonathan: Nicely put.

    Joy: That’s most helpful. I’ve tended to pronounce it Newfoundland, so it’s good to know of the alternatives and in what contexts they’re used. And certainly it makes sense to pronounce a placename the way locals do, once you’ve become a local too.

    John: Both alternative pronunciations of Uranus sound pretty strange to me; I’ve heard them only rarely, if at all. It seems there’s no avoiding the constant puns, and maybe they even helped the second-syllable pronunciation maintain dominance.

    Ray: As a child I assumed it was pronounced “litchen” for a while before hearing “liken” spoken aloud a few times. I associate “vite-amin” strongly with US English. It was very unfair – and unprofessional – of your teachers to mock you for variation in either.

    europhile: “Foilage” is a new one for me. Maybe the familiarity of “foil” primed you to misread it? Your other half is far from the only one to get Penelope wrong; I know I did, having seen it multiple times in print before hearing it, and assuming quite reasonably the more literal pronunciation.

    Bob: The GIF’s inventor has input, but not worldwide authority. Since he created it, and some people want to abide by his wishes, the soft-g pronunciation of GIF has more users than it would probably otherwise have. But the word is now in the public domain, language is democratic, and most people prefer to say it with a hard-g. There’s no law against saying fatigue “fatty-goo”, but it’s considered wrong (and ridiculous) by too many people to attain widespread currency and thereby legitimacy.

  • The other day my housemate mentioned that he used to say the ‘ub’ in the band name UB40 to rhyme with sub. And there were furrowed brows of incomprehension when another friend mentioned the singer ‘Sha’Day’, at least for those of us who knew her as plain old Sade.

    Another one that springs to mind is a friend’s reading of malevolent as male-‘vole-ent.

    One I regularly mispronounce is thesaurus. Strange, because as a kid into dinosaurs I knew of Brachiosaurus and Brontosaurus, so Thesaurus followed. But somewhere along the way I started stressing the first syllable and schwa-ing the middle one. I blame phosphorus.

  • Jonathan Marks:

    I looked it up in the third edition (LPD-3) – it’s the same: “Preference poll, BrE: ˈen- 78%, ˈɒn- 22%.”

    The primary (first) variant is also the one with ˈen- in “A phonetic dictionary of the English language” (Michaelis and Jones 1913).

    The OED says the following: “Walker 1791 records the custom then prevailing of pronouncing this word like the French enveloppe /ɑ̃vlɔp/ . In sense 2 this pronunciation, or rather some awkward attempt at it /ɑ̃vələʊp/ /ˈɒnvələʊp/ is still very frequently heard, though there is no good reason for giving a foreign sound to a word which no one regards as alien, and which has been anglicized in spelling for nearly 200 years.”

  • Oisín: Great examples. I started off rhyming Sade with made, but at some point in college heard the “official” pronunciation and duly switched. And like you I went through a “THESS-a-rus” phase, maybe because rhyming it with dinosaur names was too good to be true. But I get it reliably right nowadays. “Male-‘vole-ent” is wonderful; I’m tempted to adopt it as my new norm.

    Alex: Thanks for sharing the LPD-3 data. There may be no real need for people to persist with foreign pronunciation of long-nativised words, but habit and tradition presumably helped them stick, while affectation or a sense of propriety could also be factors.

  • I read an interview with Sian Phillips when I was child wherein she said that her first name rhymed with “Barn”.

    That, and “Fa – a long, long way to go” confused me for decades.

    Something else to blame on the Brits.

  • So how DO you pronounce “desultory?” I don’t think I have ever heard that word used in speech, and I’m not young. For that matter, the only time I’ve even seen it in writing, I think, is in the title of the Simon & Garfunkel song, “a simple desultory philippic.” No idea what that means – what’s a philippic? For that matter, what does desultory mean?

    Are there places in the world where desultory is actually used in unpretentious speech?

  • europhile: That song used to confuse me too. For example, I thought “a drink with jam and bread” was “a drink with shamman bread”, whatever that was. Because we normally had marmalade with bread, so I didn’t hear what I was supposed to hear and had to invent something.

    Joy: You can listen to the pronunciation of desultory here; Macmillan Dictionary defines it as “showing that you have no plan or enthusiasm for what you are doing”, and labels it formal. It’s not a word I hear often, either, but I wouldn’t automatically consider it pretentious. I think a lot of people stress the second syllable rather than the first.
    Oh, and a philippic is a bitter tirade.

  • Stan, the Macmillan dictionary with pronunciation is really interesting. You gave me the link to the British version – there is also an American version. No Newfoundland version, alas! More to the point, no Indian, Pakistani, South African, Kenyan, or other fairly mainstream versions either. But still really interesting! Thanks for the definitions, too, which I was too lazy to look up myself. 😉

    And I’m sorry you only had marmalade as a kid, jam is much better!

  • What a marvellous post Stan and I so enjoyed the comments. It brought back memories of so many things! A colleague from northern Ireland who pronounces ‘route’ as ‘rowt’, a daughter who called my then-favourite magazine Cosmopolitan – ‘Cosmopolitician’; a friend who pronounces ‘bury’ as …..’bury’ rather than ‘berry’; my Dad who di the ‘onvelope’ thing rather than ‘envelope’ and my all-time pet hate – the mispronunciation of ‘violent’ and ‘violence’ as ‘voilent’ and ‘voilence’. Some things you never get over…!

  • Helen: Thank you! Yes, the discussion in the comments is great: entertaining and enlightening. The “rowt” pronunciation of route is quite common, and standard, in the US, so I expect it pops up now and then in other territories too. But “voilent” and co. I won’t ever get used to, and the same goes for “mischevious”.

  • I know we’re supposed to be above such things, but I can’t repress a cringe (or even a yell of disdain) when someone pronounces nuclear as “nuculer”. Tony Blair was – and probably still is – a prime offender.
    It’s odd how deeply these things matter to us. I was once taken roundly to task by an irate American reader who said he wasn’t going to take any lessons in language use from someone who comes from a population that pronounces schedule as “shedule”. (The reason for his ire was that I had mocked some piece of business jargon, which he took to be an attack on his entire country. It wasn’t.)

  • Liz: The “nucular” pronunciation is remarkably common, though still very much a minority version, I think. M-W’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage, noting the rarity of nuclear‘s ending and the prevalence of -cular, says its users have “succumbed to the gravitational tug of a far more prevalent pattern”. Yes, it is very interesting how seriously people take these matters!

  • I’m a bit late to this discussion I guess, but someone’s comment about ‘misles’ reminded me of an incident. It was a family gathering, and we cousins were playing this game where each person says a letter to build up a word and the person who says the last letter of the word loses. So the round was progressing towards the word ‘kindliness’, and we had got as far as ‘k-i-n-d-l-i-n-e-s’. Then my cousin whose turn it was just sat there with a blank look on his face and finally asked ‘But what’s kind-lines?’

  • xyzgirl: That’s a good story! I’ve never played the game, but I can see how kindliness could lead someone up the garden path, semantically speaking.

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