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13 most commonly mispronounced words in American English—and the right way to say them

Shanti | Twenty20

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!)

Here are some of the most common ones, along with the right way to pronounce them:

1. Anyway

EH-nee-way

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."

No, it's anyWAY. And any which way you pronounce it, there's absolutely no "s."

2. Tenet 

TEN-eht

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.

3. Comptroller 

con-TROLL-er 

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 grâce

koo-de-GRAHS

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."

5. Electoral

ee-LECK-tor-al 

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. 

6. Hyperbole 

high-PER-boh-lee

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").

7. Mischievous

MIS-chuh-vus 

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, and many of us still haven't learned.

8. Ophthalmologist 

off-tha(l)-MOLL-o-gist

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.

9. Prestigious

pre-STI-jus 

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 makes the preferred pronunciation "pre-sti-jus," not "pre-stee-jus" or, even worse, "pre-stee-gee-us."

10. Prostrate

PRA-straight

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.

11. Quay

kee 

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. 

12. Segue

SEG-way

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. 

13. Remuneration

re-MYOO-nuh-ray-shun 

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.

Kathy and Ross Petras are the brother-and-sister co-authors of "Awkword Moments: A Lively Guide to the 100 Terms Smart People Should Know," "You're Saying It Wrong" and "That Doesn't Mean What You Think It Means: The 150 Most Commonly Misused Words and Their Tangled Histories." Their work has been featured in The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post and Harvard Business Review. 

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