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10 words mispronounced in every classroom

Explicitly teaching the pronunciation of certain words should help save pupils from embarrassment, says Mark Roberts

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Explicitly teaching the pronunciation of certain words should help save pupils from embarrassment, says Mark Roberts

Your skin begins to prickle. Your armpits start to moisten. The blood vessels in your face widen; blood gushes to the skin’s surface.

Something seems to have become lodged in your throat, jamming your trachea like a large, over-boiled egg.

It’s actually pronounced "neesh”, not “nitch”. Did you not know that?    


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We’ve all been there: we’ve pronounced a word contrary to how everyone else does and now we’re hanging our head in shame.

Some might see it as inevitable: as our vocabulary expands, we occasionally get caught out. Yet I’d argue that a pronunciation faux pas can be so damaging it might even stop some using elaborate language. Avid readers who’ve grown up in homes where they don’t encounter complex vocabulary are especially vulnerable to awkward mispronunciations.

Vocabulary teaching

Fine, you might say, so which words should we explicitly teach?

There are lots (or should I say a plethora?) of words out there to trip students up. Still, some words are particularly problematic.

These words are common enough to be frequently encountered in texts, but don’t sound like they look on the page. Often students (and adults) will hear these and assume they’re different words to the ones they’ve seen in ink.  

We need to explicitly teach the pronunciation of these words. Here are the 10 I think are most troublesome.

1. Epitome

For me, mere mention of this word brings on feelings of abject shame. I knew of a word pronounced “ep-it-oh-mee”, but hadn’t clicked that it was this little monster. In a university seminar, I called Iago the “epi-tome of evil”. As a fellow student put me right, the horror sank in.

2. Awry

I felt better a few months later, though, when I witnessed a distinguished history professor say: “Things quickly went 'whorey' for Mussolini in 1935, with the incompetent invasion of Abyssinia…”

Initially, I thought he was talking about prostitution, or perhaps “hoary” meaning clichéd?  But no, sure enough, he’d pronounced “a-rye” wrong. Nobody was brave enough to point it out to the man who would be marking their essays.

3. Debacle

I’ve seen confident students (and more than one teacher) make a mess of debacle. Rather than the correct “day-bark-al”, it comes out sounding like a relative of former javelin world record holder Steve Backley.

4. Façade

Another vexing French loan word that’s led to loss of face. I wish I had a euro for every time I’ve heard it pronounced “fa-kayed”.

5. Albeit

A simple enough conjunction, but because students expect it to be written as three separate words (all be it), it comes out like an obscure German word (“all-bite”).

6. Segue

Borrowed from Italian and meaning "to transition without pause on to a following activity", this verb is pronounced "seg-way". It looks French, though, so it’s often mispronounced as "say-g" or similar. To add to the confusion, a Segway is a wobbly two-wheel vehicle. Little wonder that students become unbalanced with "segue".

7. Dour

An adjective mainly used by journalists to describe Yorkshiremen. The good news is that you can correctly pronounce it as “dow-ah” or “doo-er”. The bad news is you can’t get away with “dore” or “duh”.

8. Spurious

Thankfully, nothing to do with Tottenham, this word meaning bogus, false or fake needs to be voiced “spyoor-ee-us” not “spur-ee-us”.

9. Hyperbole

The technical term for exaggeration, it requires four syllables - “hi-per-bow-lee” – rather than voicing it like a grander version of the Superbowl.

10. Anaphora

Another rhetorical device borrowed from ancient Greek. I recently discussed the pronunciation with a group of fellow English teachers; several admitted they’d been saying it wrong for most of their career. For clarity, it’s “an-aff-ora” not “anna-fora”.

 

As teachers of vocabulary, we need to anticipate that pupils are likely to come unstuck. By addressing popular misconceptions about these words, and drawing on our own experiences of making gaffes, we can help our pupils to avoid future shame.

Inevitably, my list will not be comprehensive. Do help me to develop this resource by letting me know about your own howlers.

Mark Roberts is an assistant headteacher in the South West of England


 

  

 

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