Have You Mispronounced Words Cos You’ve Only Ever Read Them? #AmReading

pronounce words readingReading has been a lifelong passion, and English not my native tongue, so I’ve had a few embarrassing moments of not knowing how to correctly pronounce words that I’ve read and written often. (I used to mispronounce ‘vehemently’ as ‘Ve-He-mently’ for some time before I heard it spoken in a TV series.)

So it was with a fair bit of amusement (i.e. laughing at myself) that I read this article about words we mispronounce because we’ve never heard them spoken. Someone sent it across after we’d had a bit of a discussion on how to pronounce Greenwich (not as “Green-witch”, but as “Gren-itch”). Pronouncing words you’ve only ever read can be tricky. The article says:

Does any of this really matter? If I say “SKED-ule” and you say “SHED-ule”, will any farcical misunderstandings or tragic loss of life ensue? Is the controversy over “con-TROV-ersy” not just a waste of everyone’s breath? Sure, but that was never the point. Like so many linguistic arguments, the power-struggles over correct pronunciation are most often proxies for issues of snobbery and class. The completely unpredictable pronunciations of many proper names in English, for example, act as a kind of secret code for the elect. Plainly the aristocracy have better things to do than to laboriously speak all the syllables in a word, and so Cholmondeley is pronounced “Chumley”. Obviously. And if you don’t know that Magdalene College, Cambridge, is actually pronounced “Maudlin” (and how could you ever guess?), that instantly marks you out as an outsider.

I still feel embarrassed about some of my mistakes (I did not realize Yosemite was pronounced ‘Yose-mi-tee’ until last year), and the fact that some words are pronounced very differently by Americans and British doesn’t help either (‘respite’, for instance). Malapropisms and eggcorns abound in my surroundings, and make things worse. It is good to know I’m not the only one having a hard time with pronunciations, though: here are a few more people who have made these goof-ups.

A dear friend of mine, while learning English, couldn’t get the hang of ‘Kitchen.’ She invariably called it ‘Chicken’. I corrected her, of course. It has remained a fond memory, and we dissolve into laughter every time we talk about it. I’ll only ever correct a pronunciation if I know the speaker very well though, and then always in a private setting.

What about you? Ever ‘mis-pronounce’ a word? Any phrases you got wrong, or heard someone else utter an eggcorn or a malapropism? Have you ever had trouble pronouncing a word in the right way? Do you feel it is snobbish to correct mispronunciations in other people?


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70 comments

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  1. cindy212

    Oh, mercy. I grew up in MinneeeeSOta, ya sure ya betcha. Lots of humor when I moved to the West coast. We pronounced roof as rufe (like rule, only more u….) and boot (which apparently sounded odd, never got that one) and route as ‘root’ and root rhymes with foot… not boot… (if you know French or Norwegian, some of the oo is more like deux as in the route, roof, boot). Pronouncing all things First Nation comes naturally.. as does Swahili (another day, another story), but I’m a native speaker of all things American. My mom was raised in Georgia so ‘drug through a knothole backwards’ was a common phrase, and my grown brother in Boston (Baston) said knickers in a knot – which apparently is quite British. I read and watch British novels and TV, so add in some accents where they don’t generally belong and … well.. things get mixed up. My most embarrassing ? Assuage. I pronounced it Ah-swage. Well. It’s close but for the bigwig I was speaking to, apparently not close enough. So now I live in Oregon and I do not make fun of those who mispronounce the state until I have them in private. Non natives tend toward Or-ee-gone. It’s more like Or-eh-gun with very little time on the eh. 🙂

  2. Jacqui Murray

    I used to correct my daughter in high school. She was a voracious reader so ran into lots of words she’d never spoken. Now, she corrects me! Sigh.

  3. grammarthoughts

    I’ve always been mispronouncing “bear” (the animal). I used to pronounce it as if it was rhyming with “fur”. Since 90% of my contact to the English language happens through written text (and anyway, who talks about bears?), no one corrected me until my younger brother heard me say it wrong reading out the lyrics of a song.

  4. Ellie P.

    Heh, this seems to be a very common occurrence! One word I used to mispronounce was “misled.” I said it as if it rhymed with “titled.” Another one I had trouble with was “epitome.” I used to say it the way it looks, like “ep-i-tome” where the tome part rhymes with home. I only found out many MANY years into adulthood that it’s pronounced “ep-i-tuh-mee,” with the accent on the i.

  5. Vincent D'Souza

    Don’t worry about pronunciation. People of England pronounce differently from county to county. Geoffrey Boycott’s pronunciation is different from many others. Pronunciation changes as per person, time and place. Don’t be embarrassed because you pronounced the words as they were written.

  6. susurrus

    I often pronounce things wrongly because I have only ever read them. One example is the fictional detective Hercules Poirot, whose surname I always first think of as Pea Rot. I have no idea why, but my French (or Belgian) accent has always been very dodgy!

  7. Janice Seagraves

    You’re not alone. I’m an avid reader as well as a published author and mispronounce things all the time because I’ve only ever read them. I shudder think what kind of cock-up is in store for me if I ever do a reading. BTW, since I am an American, I’ve only pronounced schedule “SKED-ule”.

  8. Jitendra Mathur

    It really matters for a purist (like me) Damayanti Ji. The most common mispronunciation found by me is for SIMULTANEOUS which almost everybody wrongly pronounces as SAI-MALTANEOUS.

  9. Mary Aalgaard

    I saw, never look down on someone who pronounces something phonetically (to them) because they are self-taught learners through reading. And, it’s rude to make fun of anyone for how they say something, especially non-native speakers. Although, sometimes the mispronunciations do make us chuckle because they sound so cute.
    Mary at Play off the Page

  10. Paul

    I remember reading somewhere that the great novelist, Joseph Conrad, could not pronounce certain words that he used in his novels. So, whenever I mispronounce a word I feel I’m in good company.

    Great post! 🙂

  11. Rachna

    Oh many words and phrases. How could we know as we are not native speakers? I only correct close friends and relatives, not people otherwise. And yes, the American and British pronunciation are quite confusing. Things like missile and something as simple as herb. 😊

  12. vishalbheeroo

    It always happens with me…mispronounced words, confusion over words and what’s not! It’s not our first language and it can always happen. I can relate to this post, Damyanti.

  13. kaustubhjoshi

    Oh!! That is so true. While talking to people during abroad, it always happened to be a problem. At times, I had to sheepishly write down those words for them to understand. But surprisingly what happens to me with English ( A language I learned in school and college) never happen with my mother tongue ( although I never learned it in school). I unknowingly also pronounce it correct.

  14. Lata Sunil

    Damyanti, the most hilarious I heard was a techie pronouncing Java as ‘zava’ because he was using the Maharashtrian j which is z in Marathi.

  15. Lata Sunil

    Communicating with people from across the world, I have stopped laughing at them or correcting them. It is just part of who you are. Frankly after these encounters, I also stopped laughing at jokes on people with funny accents especially the Indian ones. Our pronunciation has a history. Some words I did not know were Celtic which is pronounced as Keltik. Then there was Edinburgh which is pronounced as Edinburrah, Gloucestershire as Glouster and so on. But we learn.

  16. Obsessivemom

    The difference in pronunciation in British and American English really complicates matters. Like I said on your FB post I had a tough time figuring out many words what with the silent letters, the long and short e sounds and words from other languages that have become a part of English.

  17. andfreed

    I do think it is kind of snobbish to correct someone. I must admit though, some mispronunciations make me cringe inside (i.e. when the word “bAgel” is pronounced “baaggle”) but I usually keep it to myself.

  18. colorfulbookreviews

    I had this problem quite a bit when I was younger, but less so these days. The one I remember the most was Isaac Asimov. I’d read many of his books but didn’t know any other sci-fi fans until college. The group I joined gave me quite a bit of trouble over pronouncing his name something like Ahh-see-move and it took a while for me to learn to say it correctly.

    Living in Wisconsin, quite a few of our place names are based on the Englishized version of a French interpretation of a Native American word. The worst one for most visitors is Oconomowoc. Having grown up in the state and traveled all over it throughout my life, these are normal and second nature to me, but occasionally if we are camping somewhere new something will surprise me.

  19. Debbie D.

    Definitely, some places in in the UK are pronounced much differently than most of us would expect. Took me awhile to get the hang of those, like Leicester, pronounced “Lester”. The Premier (Football) League is helpful in that area. 🙂 My mother, who spoke German better than English, made an amusing mispronunciation once. She referred to our car’s automatic transmission as “transmatic automission”. We teased her about that one for a long time!

  20. Timothy Gwyn

    Yes. Only just learned that the c in scion is soft like science, so it’s a homophone of psion. Unless you prefer to pronounce psion as shin. Mispronounced chimera as shimmera for years.

  21. Rajlakshmi

    I mispronounce a whole heap of words, even while reading your post I learnt new pronunciations 😀 Rugged caused me a major embarassment when I pronounced it as Rugged instead of rug -ed

  22. Pradita Kapahi

    For as long as 20 years of my life I had been mispronouncing Almond as ‘Al-mond’, and not ‘A-mund’, Also, the word glimpse I pronounced ‘glim-pus’ till one batch mate made fun of me. I totally relate to this post. Ha ha!

  23. sagecoveredhills2

    As one who speaks regularly in front of people, mispronunciation is both embarrassing and humorous. I have found the site howjsay.com to be helpful (but wonder and worry if we are becoming too standardized due to computers and TV)

  24. Corinne Rodrigues

    I think many of the names of English counties causes non-native speakers grief! I had to learn them all when I was training for a British company. We Indians have a hard time with English being a stress-timed language and most of our languages are syllable-times. We often stress the wrong syllables in English – emer-Gen-cy or use equal stress in words like photography etc.

  25. Jemima Pett

    As a kid I was giggled at for reading salliver and myzled, rather than mizzled, for saliva and misled. I was shocked on TV last night, though, when the question master (well-known for wisdom and researching his facts) asked the 10-year old wannabe genius to spell a spiddistra. I had no idea what the word was (mind you a few other words were requested I’d never heard of). In this case it was the plant aspidistra – or aspi-distra.

  26. tartanrose88

    Oh god, yes, we’ve all been here. When I was a kid, vehemently, vigilante, behemoth and weirdly, grimace were all words I said wrong. But I knew what it meant even if I wasn’t pronouncing it correctly. I suppose as I was a child, you could say I was still very much learning the language anyway.

    As for correcting mispronounced words in others, yes, I do. It doesn’t stem from a nasty place, quite the opposite. I see it as, by me correcting them I’m saving them from saying it in front of someone else who might ridicule them for it. God knows there are plenty out there who would leap at the chance to do that!

  27. kvennarad

    There’s a famous episode in Richard Llewellyn’s ‘How Green Was My Valley’ in which a boy whose first language is Welsh pronounces the English word ‘misled’ as ‘mizzled’.

    Some of this stuff is dead easy, of course.

    GREENWICH: ‘Green-witch’ is in New York, ‘Gren-itch’ is in London
    MAGDALENE: ‘Maudlin’ College is in Oxford, but ‘The MAG-da-len Green’ (without the final ‘e’) is in Dundee.

    Those things matter, because they are precise, as are:

    NEWCASTLE: ‘NEW-castle’ is in Staffordshire. ‘Nyuh-CASSle’ is in Northumberland.
    BURY: ‘Berry’ is in Suffolk, ‘Burry’ is in Lancashire.
    RIO: ‘Ry-o’ is in West Virginia, ‘Ree-o’ is in Brazil.

    The rest – shedule/skedule – doesn’t matter a hill of beans. 🙂

      • cindamackinnon

        I do and English is supposed to be my native tongue, so my husband has to cringe or laugh. The worse instance is when have mis-pronounced a word so many years it is ingrained in my mind – I needed someone to correct me long ago. I attribute it to growing up in non-English speaking countries, but maybe not. Our reading vocabularies are much bigger than the words we are exposed to in conversation and then English is so tricky with different sounds for the same vowel.

  28. datmama4

    I remember (as an eight-year-old) mispronouncing “abdomen” as “ab-DOE-men” and having someone correct me. I was embarrassed, but I had only ever read it and had never heard anyone say it . . . because how many eight-year-olds hear that in conversation? I laugh about it now.

    • kvennarad

      “Old Jonah he lived in a whale,
      Old Jonah he lived in a whale,
      Now he made his home in
      That fish’s ab-DOE-men,
      Old Jonah he lived in a whale.”

      George Gershwin.

      Just saying.

  29. simonfalk28

    I have committed many mispronunciations, especially of people or of place names. Again, local knowledge plays a role here. The other source mirth is the difference between North American spelling and British spelling of words. Australia seems to still be in a state of evolution there. Although our media have dropped gaol in favour (favor) of jail. 🙂

  30. ianscyberspace

    English is a mix of many languages. Naturally we look to Latin, French and the Anglo-Saxon influences as main contributors, however because of the colonial experience there are a lot of borrowed words from other languages too. I think of the English reference to Lady Luck, which of course has reference to the goddess Laxmi. Because of the mix of Germanic and Latin base it is more difficult to construct poetry in English than it would be in French or Spanish. I had to do an article for a Thai University English department magazine and in the process dug up some document from medieval times written in old English. It was hard for me to interpret what was written into modern English usage.

  31. Elisabeth

    I am a native English speaker and this has happened to me plenty!! Place names are particularly bad, as they are regional and general spelling rules don’t apply. (I live in Oregon: try on Wallowa, Willamette, Champoeg, Puyallup for size.) Nor am I alone – the leader of my writers’ group went so long without ever hearing “omniscient” out loud, that she still can’t say it no matter how often we correct her. 🙂

    By the way, I’ve heard “vehemently” pronounced both ways and I am not certain that either one is more correct than the other.

  32. Nick Wilford

    Scotland abounds in places like these and in some cases, you would never know unless you lived there. We lived in a hamlet just up the road from our main town (where we’ve now moved back to) – it’s called Kilncadzow but is actually Killcaigie, although even people from a few miles away don’t know that. It’s hard for native English speakers as well – to be honest, I still think it’s “ve-He-mently”, and my sister pronounced “designated” as “design-ated” into her 20s!

  33. Christy B

    I’ve mispronounced and mistyped words ~ and we get held to a higher standard as writers! We just have to laugh at ourselves sometimes, right?! 🙂

  34. Dan Antion

    I’ve been caught with the difference between English and English as spoken in Boston. There’s a town “Woburn” which locals insist is pronounced woo-burn – which makes no sense.

  35. lindacovella

    I’ve always been an avid reader, too. English *is* my native language, and I often mispronounce words, ones that I’ve only read. Sometimes I quickly search my brain for a new word so I’m not embarrassed by mispronouncing something. I love that online dictionaries now include pronunciation!

  36. cleemckenzie

    These can be embarrassing moments, but I love the humor in those mispronunciations! A tourist once ask me about the best route to Lake Tahoe, only he put the emphasis on the wrong syllable and it took me a few moments to recognize what lake he was talking about. It’s TA ho, not ta HO. 🙂

  37. Victoria Blake

    I remember pronouncing albeit al-beet when I was little and everyone in my class laughing at me! I used to work in a bookshop near Leicester Square (pronounced Less-ter) in London and tourists would come in and ask for Lye-cess-ter square. I did used to tell them how to say it not from snobbery (after all why should they know?) but just because I thought it would help them get about!

  38. Tarang Sinha

    Many, many! Procedure, cipher, naive….I have studied in a Hindi medium school (up to 10th std.), so I worked hard to learn English (still learning). Sometimes, I used to mispronounce (silently) words to get the spelling right. 🙂

  39. hilarymb

    Hi Damyanti – Cholmondeley is definitely one (but you’ve put that one up) … Worcestershire – known as ‘Wurcester’ … same for Devonshire … now Devon … and so it goes … English is not easy – I am so grateful I’m an English speaking person!! Let’s not do spelling … !! Cheers Hilary

    • Damyanti Biswas

      Haha yes, when first I heard of Worcestershire sauce, I couldn’t find it at the shop, because of course I didn’t know how it was spelled. Oh the fun days of my youth.

  40. Almost Iowa

    I have noticed that almost everyone who does not live within 50 miles of Almost Iowa has problems with pronunciation. Often when I travel outside the region, I find myself compelled to correct people’s use of the language. I have often also noticed that people who lives more than 50 miles from Almost Iowa – do not accept criticism gracefully. Well, humph to them. 🙂

    • Damyanti Biswas

      We careful what you say. All of us lesser mortals might just decide to invade ‘Almost Iowa’ in search of the purrfect pronunciation! 🤣

    • tintotinta311

      Ha! Almost Iowa, did you know that actors study the Midwestern accent to gain the most widely accepted “neutral” American English accent? I’m from Minnesota (and proud of it, ya betcha!) but grew up in Iowa (ashamed of the hog farmer reputation), but guess which state is cited? As an English teacher, I fall back on the Iowa accent to not confuse foreign learners.

  41. Jon Chaisson

    The oddest one for me is ‘London’. As a kid I noticed its similarity in spelling to my home state’s capital Boston (two o’s, ends with n, two syllables), and I knew Boston was pronounced “BOSS-tun”, so I assumed the UK city was pronounced similarly as “LAWN-dun” and not ‘LUN-dun’. No one ever corrected me until MANY years later, so to this day I still have to prepare myself to pronounce it right. :p

  42. Louise Allan

    It used to happen to me a lot as a kid, and I felt so embarrassed when everyone laughed. More recently I had trouble with archipelago and odyssey, and my family will never let me forget!
    I remember enjoying my daughter talking about the ‘invalids’, meaning hospital patients but she pronounced it as you would if it was the opposite of valid.
    I could go on and on with examples. Thanks for giving me a laugh! 🙂