How many of these words do you mispronounce?
Feb 26 2016
Did you know that the English word “bird” was once pronounced (in England) as “brid”? Language evolves, and far be it from us to complain about that. As someone has put it, “English is ‘open-source.’”
But when you’re in the booth, your director or client might feel different when it comes to words that are not yet fully evolved. Just because a lot of people — even most people — might mispronounce or misuse a word or phrase, doesn’t mean you will impress your client by joining the errant throng. A VO pro should at least know the options. We’ve collected a bunch of them for your perusal.
First though, some ground rules.
We’ll omit words and phrases that are incorrect but not your fault. For example, “I could care less” (commonly heard that way) is technically all wrong. If you could care less, then you actually do care at least a bit, right? The correct phrase is “I couldn’t care less” – in other words, you care so little that it would be impossible to care less. But a professional writer should understand this. If you encounter the “wrong” version, you should probably read it as written.
To give a more subtle example, a writer should also know that it’s “repository of information,” not “suppository.” So should you, and by tactfully asking, you might save the client embarrassment later. But there are a lot of words and phrases like this, and they would be a list in itself. For now, just one more … a writer might confuse “cornet” with “coronet.” The first is a trumpet, the second is headgear. The need to catch such distinctions is yet another reason we at Edge Studio remind everyone, “Learning never ends.”
(Speaking of tact, if the copywriter wrote, “try a different tact,” should you point out that the correct phrase is “try a different tack”? Yes, but very tactfully. Or record it both ways. You do enunciate so that listeners can tell the difference, right?)
And then there are verbs like “orientate” and “utilize.” Some say the first is not a real word, and is therefore wrong, but they themselves are wrong. If you were to say simply “I’ve orientated,” it would mean you have faced yourself to the east. But if you “orientate” something (making it a transitive verb), it means exactly the same thing as if you “orient” it. Same for the word “utilize” – it means exactly the same thing as “use.” They just sound fancier and more technical, we suppose, which is why they’re found so often in business writing. But not so much used by writers who prefer to “say it shorter. ” (We apologize for some of the wordiness in this hastily written article!)
(Incidentally, there’s a school of thought that if the script is wrong, well, read it exactly that way and move on, because you’ll get paid to correct it later. Maybe so. But if another talent, through a simple, tactfully worded and timed question saves the client all that hassle and expense, who do you think will get called for the next job?)
We’ll also omit words that are sometimes mispronounced by people for whom English is not their first language. For example, on encountering the word “colleague,” someone unfamiliar with English might logically sound it out as “col-ee-gue” rather than the correct pronunciation, which is “col-eeg.” (By the way, if you’ve learned English as a second language, one where “cove,” “move” and “love” are all pronounced differently, congratulations!)
And we’ll skip most words that vary because they are foreign words or British or Canadian pronunciations. For example, the German name “Euler” should be pronounced “oiler,” not “yooler,” but it’s not commonly encountered in a North American script, so for now we’ll let it go. And if Brits pronounce “zebra” as “zeb-rah” rather than the American “zee-brah,” well, there are too many examples like that to cover here. The pronunciation you should choose will of course depend on the client, subject and/or audience.
But the border between client responsibility and yours is fuzzy. If the scriptwriter writes “taken for granite” or “It’s a doggy dog world” instead of the correct version, who knows? Maybe it was meant to be funny, or to convey the character you’re playing. But many people do get those wrong like that. So, rather than being thought a mumbler or worse, should you clearly say “granite” and “dog eat dog”? In these gray areas, it’s best to ask, or tack a wild line (the alternative version of that phrase or sentence) on at the end.
And there are a lot of non-English words that are commonly encountered in North American English scripts. For example, the French word “niche.” Should you say it the French way (neesh) or as many Americans might (“nitch”)? If it’s a small hole in a wall or hutch (or such), you might choose to say “nitch,” because if it’s not decorative, or is in a humble home, the French pronunciation seems a bit elaborate. But again, this choice depends on client, subject, tone and audience, and until further notice the preferable option is “neesh.” It also avoids confusion with “an itch.” But in England? It’s said “nitch.” Sometimes it seems that the English, despite French being the root of so many English words, seem to show less respect for French pronunciation.
We’ll also omit most broad regional pronunciations, such as the Southern U.S. habit of using a “D” sound in place of an “S”, as when “business” becomes “bidness,” and “isn’t” becomes “idn’t,” etc. Or when a soft “E” sound (as in “ten”) becomes “ih” (as in “tin”). Just be aware of the many differences between the various regional patterns and “neutral” American English.
(And by the way, our focus in this article, if only to keep it manageable, is neutral U.S. English, what you’ll encounter in standard American dictionaries.)
And finally, we’ll omit words that are often spelled or chosen wrong, but sound right. For example, in the phrase “waited with bated breath,” what does voice talent care if it was misspelled “baited”?
So much for what’s not on our list. The words that remain are many, falling into various categories. Here are some of those categories …
Words mispronounced so often, they’re almost acceptable. Or even are acceptable at least in some circles. For example, “nuclear.” The correct pronunciation is “noo-klee-ar” or “noo-klee-er.” But many people say “noo-kyoo-ler.” Look at the letter order. That’s just plain wrong. But it’s been said the “wrong” way publicly by no less a voice artist than Orson Welles, and by Jimmy Carter, who before being President of the United States was a naval nuclear engineer. Nevertheless, when you encounter it, go “noo-klee-er.”
Some mispronunciations apparently have more direct military association. Consider the word “helicopter.” The correct spelling is just like it’s spelled: “h**l-ih-cop-ter.” But you’ll hear it pronounced “hee-lo-cop-ter” and even “hee-lee-oh-cop-ter.” Ironically, the first of these errant two is etymologically correct. The “heli” part comes from “helix” (pronounced “hee licks”) which describes the pattern the rotors take while rising. (In the 19th century, an actual helix was tried, but it didn’t work.) But that detail got forgotten long, long ago. The second version is just plain wrong: “helio” would mean “of the sun,” obviously irrelevant. And in the military a shorthand version is “heelo.” Technically, maybe that should be “heely,” but never mind. We understand some people were taught to say “hee…” as kids because they weren’t supposed to say “h**l.” In any case, if you say “h**l-ih-cop-ter,” you can’t go wrong. Usually.
Some other words are mispronounced for other cultural reasons. Various segments of society simply learned them “wrong.” The K sound is often involved. For example “ax” for “ask” and “expresso” for “espresso.” On the streets or in a cafe, do what you like. But if you grew up saying, “excape” for “escape,” better say the latter when in the booth.
There’s also “telephony” which is properly pronounced “tell-EH-pho-nee.” But even some highly respected VO professionals say “telophony” (tell-AH-pho-nee) … go figure. We have no idea how that got started. Maybe because it’s funny.
Simple sloppiness explains another group of mispronunciations. Not that you would even think you’re being sloppy, since so many people are in this crowd. For example, “diamond.” You might say “die-muhnd” thinking you’re totally correct. Socially, perhaps. But where’d the “a” go? The accurate pronunciation is “die-uh-muhnd,” and although you don’t need to exaggerate it, a casting pro is likely to note your awareness, or lack thereof.
Some words are just the opposite. People add a syllable that isn’t there. For example, many people say “ath-eh-leet” for “athlete.” But look, there’s no “E” before the “L.” The correct way is “ath-leet.” A similar case is “masonry”; many people erroneously say “may-son-er-ee.”
Sometimes people don’t so much add a syllable as they add a letter. For example, “zoology” is pronounced “zoh-oll-ojee.” There are only two “O”s at the front, and one of them is part of “ology,” so how can it start with “zoo”?
Transpositions are another cause of confusion. The Latin phrase “et cetera” means “and so on.” By looking at it, you can easily see that it starts with “eht.” But many people say “eck.” Those many people are simply wrong. The same is true of its abbreviation, “etc.”
Hmm… technically that’s not a perfect transposition. So, another example. We’ve already dealt with “aks” for “ask,” so let’s move on to “foliage.” Some people instead see it as “foilage” and pronounce it that way. Maybe they’re relating it to “silage”? Furthermore, even a major dictionary rationalizes a two-syllable pronunciation (“foh-lihj”), comparing it to “marriage” and “carriage,” but we don’t buy it. It should be “foh-lee-aj” and that’s that. If you need further explanation, we’ll refer you to Woody Allen’s character in “Crimes and Misdemeanors.”
One of our “favorite” errors is “kudos.” It’s a Greek word, meaning praise. And while a person might gather many praises, “kudos” is not a plural, and “kudo” is not (correctly) a word. The word just happens to end in “S.” Compare it to “goo,” or “oobleck” or “stuff.” You wouldn’t make plurals of those, and “praise” is not a plural just because it sounds like it. Anyway, the “S” is an “S” sound, not “Z.” If you get this right, then much kudos to you.
And some others, chosen from our master list almost at random …
Parliament. Americans tend to say it “Par leh ment” or “Par-la-ment,” but the correct pronunciation is to pronounce each vowel: “par-lee-uh-ment,” without dwelling on the “i”. That would come out something like “Parl-yuh-ment.” But actually, the Americans aren’t all that wrong, because the English word comes from the French, which is “parlement,” and that’s what France calls its legislative body. So when referring to the French Parlement, you can anglicize the word (“pahr-luh-ment”), or use the French pronunciation (roughly, “pahr-luh-monh”, not fully closing the “n” sound, and accenting each syllable equally).
Incidentally, the French government has announced official changes in French spelling, to take effective in September 2016. The language has eight words, each spelled differently, pronounced as the letter “O”. Reportedly, those will not be changed.
Genre. We at Edge Studio use this a lot, of course. Although you might get away with “jon-ruh,” the correct pronunciation is “zhon-ruh” or if you F*******y it, “zhawn-ruh.” (The “zh” sound is as in “vision.”)
Realtor® It’s a trademark and is not a contraction of “real estate,” so don’t stick an “E” in there and say “reel-a-ter.” Make it just two syllables: “Reel-ter” or “Reel-tor,” and without getting tangled up on the “O” sound.
Silicon and Silicone. They’re two different words. One is a synthetic polymer found in some … uh … sealants and glues, the other is a chemical element used in making semiconductors and beaches. And they’re pronounced differently, the latter having a long “O”.
Almond. For all our going on about failing to pronounce the “i” in “diamond,” and such, this is a bit embarrassing. This word is preferably pronounced “ah-mund,” NOT “ahl-mund.” This surprised even us, so we looked it up in several sources. Yep. “Ahmund” is preferred. In some sources, the other is not even an option.
Zwieback. It’s bread toasted until dry and crisp. And it’s “ZWEE-back.” … ’Nuff said.
Wednesday In America, it’s “wenz day,” simple enough, one of those words that, like “Gloucester” (“Gloss-ter”) has its own rule. But it’s handy, in case ever requested, to be able to give it a formal British spin, which is to give the middle part a nod without fully pronouncing the “nes”: “Wed’nz-day”.
February. It’s acceptable in VO circles to say “Feb-you-ary,” but some sticklers or characters might prefer the old fashioned “Feb-roo-ary,” so be prepared for either. If you can say the tongue-twister version without slowing, pausing or tripping up, good for you. In any case, this does NOT give you license to say “ligh-bary.”
Caucasus. Don’t confuse this with the word “caucus” (as in “the group caucuses in the cloak room”). The Caucasus is a region, and as you see, it’s not a plural; the tail “S” is a hard one, so say, “Kaw-ka-suss.”
And lastly, while in a political mood …
Electoral, mayoral, pastoral. These are often roughed up in two ways. First, some people add an “i” sound, saying it like “elek-tor-ee-al.” And then, even more people emphasize the “or” syllable. The correct pronunciations are “ee-LEC-tor-al,” “MAY-or-al,” and “PASS-tor-al.”
Here are are authorities to check with when there’s any question. Some of them include or feature spoken audio examples.