There’s nothing more irritating to a pedant’s ear than someone saying “mischievious” instead of “mischievous,” and nothing more embarrassing than realizing you’ve been pronouncing the word mischievous with an extra i for your whole life. Despite the judgment we exhibit toward people who err in enunciating, we all mispronounce a word from time to time, despite our best efforts.
A recent study attempted to determine the most frequently mispronounced English words in Britain, concluding that 82 percent of Britons frequently mispronounce words. The study’s list of the most common mispronunciations included terms like prescription, espresso, and several location names. One of the locations, the railway station St. Pancras International, commissioned the study due to their frustration at the constant confusion of their name with the word pancreas.
Writers were quick to jump to the defense of their errant countrymen, arguing that mispronunciations don’t matter and have actually shaped English as we know it today. David Shariatmadari notes in The Guardian that former mispronunciations like "bird" (formerly "brid") have become the correct pronunciations over time. These widespread errors eventually become so pervasive that they must be deemed acceptable and added to the dictionary; these processes account in large part for why English today no longer remotely resembles Middle English. Sometimes pronunciations still commonly considered incorrect are added to dictionaries merely because the pronunciation has become ubiquitous, causing fury among prescriptivists.
Trying a different angle, also in The Guardian, Steve Poole argues that policing pronunciations, especially counterintuitive ones (he uses the example of Magdalene College in Cambridge, which is somehow pronounced "Maudlin"), enforces in-group/out-group distinctions that serve to perpetuate class and cultural divides. As he writes, "Like so many linguistic arguments, the power-struggles over correct pronunciation are most often proxies for issues of snobbery and class." And yes, that’s a valid concern.
However, just because a snobbish fixation on “the proper pronunciation” can be taken overboard, that doesn’t mean we can completely disregard the value of consistent, clear pronunciation. There’s a reason we prefer words to be pronounced the same way each time: It reduces barriers to understanding. Take Houston Street, a major thoroughfare in New York City. It's pronounced "How-ston," though it's spelled the same way as the large city of Houston, Texas, which is pronounced "Hyoo-ston." Accordingly, it's understandable that tourists and newcomers frequently mispronounce the name of Houston Street, and they're frequently snickered at for doing so. And sure, it might be my smug inner New Yorker (or New York resident, at least) sneering when someone refers to “Hyooston Street,” instantly marking himself as a tourist, but it also genuinely takes me a beat longer to realize the street he’s referring to than it would have if he’d pronounced it “How-ston.” Even though they’re pronouncing Houston in a perfectly logical way, my ears have become so accustomed to the New York pronunciation over the past few years that it takes me a moment to process the alternate pronunciation.
This applies to words as well as local place names with obnoxiously illogical pronunciations. While pronunciation guides often carp about common errors like espresso and prescription, these are actually unlikely to cause much confusion. The usual mispronunciations (“expresso” and “perscription,” respectively) are aurally similar to the correct ones, and there are no common near-homophones with which the mispronounced word are likely to be confused. When someone says “expresso,” we might cringe, but there’s not even a slight difficulty in understanding the word.
There are, however, some words we really need to stop mispronouncing. They’re easily confused with other words when not clearly and correctly enunciated, and you’re just sowing bewilderment behind you if you misuse them heedlessly. Here are 17 words you might be mispronouncing, and why you need to stop now.
Ask: David Shariatmadari, defending mispronunciations in The Guardian, notes that pronouncing ask as “aks” is a “very common, perfectly natural” error referred to as “metathesis.” But there’s already a pretty well-known word pronounced “aks,” and it refers to a hatchet-like tool or weapon. Let’s keep axes out of this.
Cache: English speakers often seem befuddled by words that end with “-che.” It’s tempting to pronounced this “cash-ay,” but that pronunciation belongs to the word cachet, which means the state of having high status or prestige. Cache is actually pronounced the same way as cash, and it means a group of items hidden in a secret storage place.
Cavalry: Cavalry, which refers to soldiers mounted on horseback, is tricky to pronounce, so it’s unsurprising that people often blur it into “cal-vary.” But Calvary is already taken -- it refers to the hill outside Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified. Avoid that whole awkward conversation by enunciating cavalry carefully.
Fiscal: We’re often tempted to toss extra vowels into words with juxtaposed consonants -- ath-a-lete instead of athlete, for example. But “fis-i-cal” isn’t just incorrect, it’s confusingly close to “physical.” For clarity, make sure you’re restricting yourself to the two-syllabled fiscal, which means pertaining to government revenues and expenditures.
Hyperbole: What? A hyper bowl?! Where?? And how can a bowl even be hyper? Oh, oh, you mean hyperbole. Yes, that’s pronounced “hy-per-ba-lee,” not “hyper-bowl.” Don’t make people struggle to understand why a bowl might be characterized as overactive or frenetic when you’re simply trying to refer to hyperbole, the literary technique of exaggerating for effect.
Irreverent: Speakers often blur the “i” and the “t” in this adjective, resulting in a much different noun: “A reverend.” Irreverent should be pronounced more like “ear-rever-ent” than “uh-rever-end.” You don’t want to accidentally refer to a singular minister when you’re trying to describe a person as showing disrespect to something or someone normally treated with respect. Is your friend Teddy irreverent, or is he a reverend? This is a pretty important distinction.
Liable: Both of those vowels after the l need to be enunciated: “li-a-ble.” It’s easy to drop the a, but then you’re saying “lie-bull,” and that’s how you pronounce another legal term: libel. When it comes to the law, it’s best to be as clear as possible: say “li-a-ble” when you mean “legally responsible” and “lie-bull” when you mean “written defamation.”
Moot: Moot, meaning “open to discussion and unlikely to come to a definite answer,” or “not of practical value to discuss,” may seem similar to mute, meaning “silent” or “not making a sound.” But they are not pronounced the same way. Moot should always be pronounced with the “moo” of a cow, not the “myu” of mute. It may seem to be a moot point, but in reality, a moot point is quite different from a mute point (which, somehow, must be made silently).
Niche: Like cache, niche should end with a soft “sh.” However, we tend to say “nitch” instead of “neesh.” Technically both pronunciations are now considered correct, but if you want your interlocutor to know that you’re referring to “a niche,” a small wall recess or a position for which someone is well-suited, and not “an itch,” an unpleasant tickling sensation that induces scratching, we recommend using the original French pronunciation.
Peremptory: Meaning “leaving no opportunity for disobedience or refusal,” peremptory is usually used to refer to a dictatorial command, and it’s correctly pronounced “per-emp-tor-y.” It’s frequently pronounced “pre-emp-tor-y,” with a careless switcharoo of the first e and r. This sounds an awful lot like preempt, and while preemptory isn’t actually the adjective form of preempt (that would be preemptive, meaning “intended to prevent or forestall a future event”), the fact that you’re now using a totally fictional word leaves your conversational partner totally at sea in interpreting this. Are you trying to say peremptory or preemptive? How are they supposed to know? Save them the trouble and say it right the first time.
Picture: Guys. It’s "pic-shur" or "pic-tchur," not “pitch-er.” This is very important, because both pictures and pitchers are items you might have lying around your house. Do you want to be handed the pitcher sitting on the table, or the picture sitting on the table? Would you like a nice framed picture for your birthday, or a lovely glass pitcher? Make sure to enunciate that hard “c” so everyone knows for sure.
Prostrate: You lie prostrate on the ground (face down on the ground), not prostate (“ gland near the bladder in male mammals). For that matter, don’t reverse them either. The two words are so close it’s common for an “r” to be dropped -- or for an extra one to slip in. But come on, they’re two entirely different words! Make sure you’re using the right number of rs, and saying the word you mean to say.
Silicon: Silicon and silicone seem like basically the same word -- they’re both materials of some sort, and there’s only one pesky e differentiating them, right? But silicon, which refers to the chemical element often used in electronics, and silicone, which refers to a rubbery compound used in non-stick cookware and breast implants, are not only different materials but have different pronunciations. Silicon, as in “Silicon Valley,” is pronounced “sill-i-con,” while silicone is pronounced “sill-i-cone.”
Specific: It’s unclear why it’s so hard to enunciate the s at the beginning of the word specific, but many people seem to skip right past it to the p. Which means that specific becomes pecific... and suddenly it sounds a lot like you’re saying pacific. Do you mean “particular” and “clearly defined,” or do you mean “peaceful”? Don’t make us guess.
Suite: Suite, a term for a group of things being used for the same purpose (usually a set of rooms), looks more like suit than sweet. But it’s pronounced like the latter, not the former. Pronounce suite as “sweet,” or people will wonder why you had to rent a suit for the wedding instead of just bringing your own to the hotel.
Tack: Like anyway, tack often suffers the indignity of having another letter just, well, tacked right onto the end. Tack is pronounced as written, not as “tact.” The word refers to a short pin or to the act of changing direction, and the latter definition most commonly suffers from mispronunciation. Because tact means the ability to deal with difficult situations without giving offense, it seems like an appropriate word to use when referring to altering your approach in conversation in order to get a better response. But the correct phrase, and pronunciation, is “changing tack,” as it was originally a metaphor drawn from sailing.
Tenet: Tenet has been so frequently mispronounced that the error has begun to plague print instances as well. Tenet, meaning a central principle or belief, has only one n and is pronounced “ten-et,” not “ten-ent.” Of course, there is a word pronounced “ten-ent” -- tenant, which refers to someone who inhabits a rented dwelling. But just to be clear, freedom of speech is not a “basic tenant of American society,” it’s a “basic tenet of American society.”
CLARIFICATION: A previous version of this post only listed one of the correct pronunciations for the word “picture.” The other has been added.