Proper Pronunciation Is [i-spesh-uh-lee] Important

Put your pronunciation skills to the test.

Lisa B. Marshall
6-minute read

Especially, especially, especially...Oh, man, it's pronounced i-spesh-uh-lee. That means I've been saying it wrong for forty years. How embarrassing. Worse I got it wrong in front of thousands. And of course, I didn't just say it wrong once. In the first six episodes I used the word nine times. Maybe I should go back and re-record those episodes. I don't know. What do you think?

Yo Adriene, Did Ya Hear Her Say Ekspecially [sic]?

Truthfully, proper pronunciation is something I have been working on my entire life. I was born and raised in southern New Jersey just outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. That's right, home to the fictional Rocky Balboa of "Yo, Adriene" fame. And also, interestingly, home to one of the most studied US dialects. Remember that Gershwin classic? "You like poh-tay-toh, I like poh-tah-to, you like toh-may-toh, and I like to-mah-to..." Well, in Philadelphia it's neither "toh-may-toh"  or "to-mah-to", it's "to-may-ta" and "po-tay-ta". Where I grew up, "wooder" was the clear liquid that came out of the tap.  Of course, that would be "water" for everyone else. So, I always appreciate, sincerely, when somebody corrects me. Especially if I mispronounce a word. (Hey, did you notice? I said it right! or did I?) Don't get me wrong, constructive feedback still stings, but certainly it's better to improve than continue with mistakes. So, I'd like to publicly thank the listeners who privately, tactfully, and gently pointed out my error. (OK, thanks to the many listeners who pointed out my mistake.) With each new email pointing out the error, I just kept telling myself, "This is a learning opportunity. Constructive feedback is good thing." Then, suddenly I thought, "Hey, I should do an episode on this." 

Common Mispronunciations

So, the goal of this episode is to prevent future embarrassment for both of us. (OK, mostly for me, but maybe for you too.) To be clear, the show is not about regional differences in pronunciation (I'll cover accents in another episode), but actual mistakes, "mispronounciations". 

Did you hear it? It should have been mispronunciations. (I always imagine a little tiny nun, hitting a ruler on a wooden school desk every time a mistake is made.) Anyway, I figured that word was a good one to start with. (It's kind of like starting with "misspelling" when you are talking about common spelling errors.)

I Went to the Library to Ask About February

So what other mispronunciations do people make?  Well, I went to my public library to ask. Did you see how I cleverly included the words "library" and "ask" in that sentence.  Many people commonly say "li-berry," not "li-brery," and "aks" or "ax," not "ask." I know as a child these were two pronunciations that were drilled into my head. My father insisted on practice every time we passed by the town library.

When you make errors, people will make snap decisions about your character and intelligence. So pronunciation is something we should all be aware of, especially in our professional conversations.

But, I just checked the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary and for the word "library" it has both "li-brery" and "li-bery". Hmm... maybe the second pronunciation, with a silent "r",  is now an acceptable variant of the word? That happens with words. Over time, a mispronunciation can become the standard pronunciation. (But I decided to check another dictionary, this time my Random House. They didn't include "li-bery").

That got me thinking, my father also used to drill us on the word "February." It also has a similar non-silent 'r'. I decided to check that one out too. What do you know,  again the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary has both "Feb-oo-ary," and "Fe-broo-ary." Strict prescriptivists (as well as my Random House Dictionary) insist on two "r"s, but maybe one "r" makes sense? This is the English language we're talking about. Every letter is not always pronounced. After all who says, "Please pass me the "k-nife."

Hmm... so then what about "ask" and "aks." Well ask [æsk] is considered the standard American pronunciation, while ask [?sk] is standard in other English speaking countries.  Although [aks] is commonly heard in the U.S., it is often considered substandard. What did Merriam-Webster say? It marked that pronunciation as dialectical.


About the Author

Lisa B. Marshall

Lisa B. Marshall Lisa holds masters with duel degrees in interpersonal/intercultural communication and organizational communication. She’s the author of Smart Talk: The Public Speaker's Guide to Success in Every Situation, as well as Ace Your Interview, Powerful Presenter, and Expert Presenter. Her work has been featured in CBS Money Watch, Ragan.com, Woman's Day, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and many others. Her institutional clients include Johns Hopkins Medicine, Harvard University, NY Academy of Science, University of Pennsylvania, Genentech, and Roche.