English can get really problematic when it comes to public speaking, because it’s crammed with so many words that almost all of us have struggled to pronounce at least once or twice.
As writers of several grammar books, we’ve heard many words mispronounced over the years. (Confession: We’ve even done it ourselves!)
Why is this easy word here? Because an alarming number of people seem to think there is an “s” at the end. “Anyways,” they say. “I was going to say it correctly anyways.”
A tenet (with one “n”) is a basic belief, and a tenant (with a second “n”) is someone who rents an apartment or house from a landlord. Therein lies the confusion.
We’ve even heard it from former president Barack Obama during a speech he gave in August, when he said “the basic tenets of our democracy” – and threw in an extra “n” to say tenant instead of tenet.
This annoying word – referring to a management-level position dealing with accounting and financial reporting – has been bothering people since the early 1500s.
In spite of its spelling, it’s technically pronounced without the “p” and with an “n” instead of an “m.” Why the weird spelling? A long time ago, it got confused with a French word “compte,” which means account.
4. Coup de grace
This is a French phrase, meaning killing blow, or literally “a stroke of grace” by putting enemies out of their misery by killing them. It migrated into English along with a bad mispronunciation.
Many people pronounce it as “coo-de-gra,” maybe because leaving out the last “s” somehow sounds more French. But if you say it this way, you’re literally saying a “stroke of fat.”
We’ve all heard of the Electoral College, that unwieldy process of choosing the President. But not only do many of us not understand how it works, we don’t even pronounce it correctly.
For the record, the accent is on the second syllable, not the third. So it’s “ee-LECK-tor-al,” not “ee-leck-TOR-al,” and most definitely not “ee-leck-TOR-ee-al” – which we’ve also heard.
Hyperbole means excess or exaggeration, and we’re not being hyperbolic when we say that many people, including former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, pronounce the word as it’s spelled: “Hyper-bowl.”
But this word comes from the ancient Greek, and the final “e” is pronounced like “Penelope” (and like another tricky “e”-ending word, “epitome” – which is “epi-tuh-mee,” not “epp-i-toam”).
Many people pronounce this with an extra syllable – “mis-CHEE-vee-ee-us” – and even throw in an extra “i” when they spell it (“mischievious”). This mistake goes as far back as the 16th century title loans ME, and many of us still haven’t learned.
It’s not “op,” as in “optic.” It’s “oph,” pronounced with an “f” – from the from the Greek word “ophthalmos” (the eye). Then there’s the sneakier problem: There are two “l” letters in “ophthalmologist,” which many people don’t see. But don’t worry, you don’t have to pronounce it.
Prestigious means having prestige or being honored, but too many people dishonor this word by pronouncing the first “i” in the word as “ee”. But that “i” should be pronounced as a short “i,” and the second “i” should be elided or skimmed over, not emphasized.
This word is often mispronounced without an “r,” because it’s commonly confused with the word “prostate.” For the record, prostrate with two “r” letters means lying face down, and prostate with one “r” refers to a male organ.
Quays are platforms built next to bodies of water, used for loading and unloading freight or passengers. Looking at the word, it’s easy to see how many people incorrectly pronounce it as “kway.” But it’s always pronounced “kee.”
Why the odd spelling? To make a long story short, the word came into English from the French, and got a partial French spelling and a partial French pronunciation.
Resist the temptation to pronounce this as “seg-u.” Segue, which means to lead from one thing to another without a pause, is pronounced just like the Segway, a motorized two-wheel vehicle that came out a few decades ago.
Often used in business, remuneration means payment received for work or service done. Almost everyone flips the “m” and the “n” and says “re-NUM-eration,” instead of the correct “re-MYOO-nuh-ray-shun” – perhaps because the word has a lot to do with NUMbers.