How to Pronounce ‘Biopic’

If you pronounce biopic as "BI-opic," you've made a mistake called a misle.

Neal Whitman, Writing for
4-minute read
Episode #543
The Quick And Dirty

It's "bio-pick."

What Is a Misle?

Today I want to talk about misles, and one misle in particular. 

What’s a misle, you ask? It’s a mispronunciation of a word based on its spelling. It gets its name from the past tense of the verb mislead. The word misLED can be misREAD as /ˈmaɪzəld/. People who read it this way might go for years before they realize that misle-d and mis-led are the same word—the same way that it took me to realize that Tuck-son and Tucson, Arizona were the same place. Other misles include infrare-d for infrared, and warp-lanes for warplanes.

Why Some People Say 'BI-opic' and Others Say 'BIO-pic'

However, the misle that I want to talk about today is a word for a movie based on the life of a real person, such as Amadeus, The Imitation Game, or The Theory of Everything. The word was coined in the 1940s by shortening the words biographical and picture to bio and pic, and then forming a compound word out of these clipped forms: bio-pic. The misle for BIopic is biOPic. This misle is particularly strong, because when we see -ic at the end of a word, it’s usually a suffix. The temptation to put the stress on the op syllable is even stronger in BIopic because so many other words end not just in –ic but in –opic, such as topic, tropic, and myopic. Many of them are medical and scientific words that contain the root scope, such as telescopic, microscopic, and arthroscopic. Even though –opic isn’t a suffix in any of these words, it’s still easy to notice a pattern. It doesn’t help that people don’t call movies pictures or pics anymore. They call them movies or films. 

So there’s plenty of reason to assume that BIopic is pronounced biOPic. Usually, when people learn the word’s etymology, they quickly revise their pronunciation. Sometimes they’re embarrassed by their earlier pronunciation.

Why 'BI-opic' Seems to Make So Much Sense

But here’s an interesting question: Why are speakers so ready to change their pronunciation? Why is it so obvious that if a word is composed of bio and pic, it should be pronounced BIOpic? How do we know that BIopic is like BIosphere, BIomass, and BIotechnology, and not like biOLogy, biOGraphy, and antibiOTic

The answer involves two of the many rules that English speakers know without knowing they know them. The first rule is about suffixes. We know that only certain suffixes, including –ic, insist on coming right after a stressed syllable. For example, when you put –ic on the root THORax, you get thorACic, not THORacic. The verb TERRify has stress on the first syllable, but the adjective terrIFic has stress right before the –ic. We don’t say TERRific. In contrast, other suffixes, such as –ful, don’t mess with the stress of their root words. When we attach –ful to the noun WONder, we get WONderful, not wonDERful.

So when we learn that the –ic at the end of BIOpic isn’t a suffix at all, much less one that needs a stressed syllable before it, we’re immediately less likely to put the stress on the OP. And when we learn that BIOpic is a compound, the second rule comes into play: the rule of compound stress. English speakers know that English compound words are almost always stressed on their first element. We have WEB pages, not web PAGES, AIRports, not airPORTS, HOT dogs, not hot DOGS—at least if we’re talking about sausages. If the first element has more than one syllable, the stress still doesn’t get shifted anywhere. So we say PARKing lot, not parkING lot, and MONKey bars, not monKEY bars, and aPARTment building, not apartMENT building. Using the compound stress rule, the word is pronounced BIopic, not bi-O-pic. 

Why 'BI-opic' Has Staying Power Even Though It's Wrong

Still and all, the misle biOPic may be gaining more legitimacy than misles such as infrare-d, warp-lanes, and misle. Earlier, I asked why speakers were so willing to change their pronunciation when they learned the etymology of BIopic, but the truth is that not all of them do. To some, biOPic just sounds right, regardless of how it was created. I’ve found several online threads discussing the pronunciation of BIopic, and there is always someone to defend the biOPic pronunciation, even if they know the word is composed of bio and pic. Furthermore, the online Cambridge Dictionary has recordings of both pronunciations, and it says that BIopic is actually the UK pronunciation, while biOPic is the American one. So if you’ve been saying biOPic all this time and the thought of changing is disturbing to you, don’t worry about it too much. As long as you’re not saying bioPIC, you should be fine.

The list of misles: http://chronicle.com/blogs/linguafranca/2011/12/01/beware-the-misles/

Cambrdige Dictionary pronunciations of biopic: http://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/pronunciation/english/biopic

Neal Whitman is an independent researcher and writer on language and grammar. He blogs at literalminded.wordpress.com, and tweets @LiteralMinded

About the Author

Neal Whitman, Writing for Grammar Girl

Neal Whitman PhD is an independent writer and consultant specializing in language and grammar and a member of the Reynoldsburg, Ohio, school board. You can search for him by name on Facebook, or find him on Twitter as @literalminded and on his blog at literalminded.wordpress.com.