Pronunciation Poise: How to Pronounce Some Tricky Words Correctly

By Joseph Priest, Corporate Writer, Syniverse

Is it best to pronounce the first syllable of the word “Caribbean” like the first syllable in the word “connote,” or the first syllable in the word “caribou”? Should “jaguar” be pronounced as “jag-wire” or “jag-war”? And is the word “comptroller” really pronounced exactly like the word “controller” is?

Today’s increasing informality has made both our writing and our speech more and more colloquial. Yet while most consider this a good thing, casualness in our speech has led many of us to fail to distinguish between what is easy and natural, and what is just plain sloppy. At the same time, others who are aware of the greater informality and fearful of being considered careless can overcompensate by using stilted and eccentric pronunciations. (By the way, the answers to the questions in the first paragraph are “caribou” and “jag-war,” and, yes, “controller” is the pronunciation for “comptroller.”)

The truth is, we judge others by the way they speak, and they judge us. For this reason, how public relations professionals choose to say their words can matter just as much as the words they choose to say. To help keep your poise with pronunciation, here’s a rundown of commonly mispronounced words to keep on the tip of your  tongue. Most of them are based on guidelines from Garner’s Modern American Usage.

Do any of these words cause confusion for you? Please reach out to me at [email protected] to let me know.

cache - This word, which means a hiding place for money or goods or a stash of money or goods, is pronounced just as “cash” is.

Caribbean - The preferred pronunciation is “kar-i-bee-in” – with the first syllable rhyming with the word “care” – because it’s derived from “Carib,” the name of the native inhabitants of the islands that Christopher Columbus landed on and explored in the 1490s. The pronunciation “kuh-rib-ee-in” is also common, however, especially in British English.

comptroller - This is one of the most confusingly pronounced words in the English language. The traditionally proper pronunciation of this word, which means a government official in charge of finance and auditing, is exactly the same as “controller.” The strange spelling of “comptroller” originated several centuries ago, when Latinists sought to respell French words with a purer Latin structure. Consequently, “controller” developed the alternate spelling “comptroller” as a result of an association between the first part of the word, “cont-,” and the etymologically unrelated word “count” and its variant, “compt.” Although the historical pronunciation of “comptroller” has been the same as for “controller,” the “compt” pronunciation has gained wide acceptance and is not considered incorrect.

homogeneous - This is the correct word when you mean “of the same or similar nature,” and thus it’s properly pronounced “hoh-moh-jee-nee-us.” It’s not “huh-mah-juh-nus,” which is the pronunciation for “homogenous,” an archaic biological term meaning “similarity of structure between organs.”

jaguar - “Jag-war” or “jag-yoo-ar,” but not “jag-wire.”

mischievous - It’s “mis-chi-vus” – a three-syllable word – not “mis-chee-vee-uhs.” 

niche - The preferred pronunciation rhymes with “ditch” – not the French-pronounced “leash.” “Niche” did originally enter English from French, but the anglicized pronunciation has been preferred since the mid-1700s.  

primer - The word for a book that covers the basics of a subject is “prim-ur” in American English. In British English,  though, it’s “pry-mur,” which is also the way a paint undercoat is pronounced in the U.S. and U.K.

processes - In American English, this should end with the sound of “is” – not with the sound of “seize,” as in British English. However, many people seemingly mistake “process” for a Greek word and follow the format for Greek word plurals like “crises” and “theses,” which do have a “seize” sound. However, “process” is an English word and uses a regular American English plural pronunciation.

sherbet - Pronounced “shur-bit,” this word is commonly mispronounced with an intrusive “r” – “shur-burt.”

short-lived - This is without a doubt one of the most mispronounced words in English. The “live” in this word is actually formed from the noun “life” – not the verb “live” – so it’s properly pronounced with a long “i,” as in “life.” In British English, though, the “live” (verb) pronunciation is standard.

vice versa - It’s “vy-suh ver-sa” – not “vys ver-sa.” The “vice” in this word is not the same as the “vice” in “vice president.” The “vice” in “vice versa” comes from the Latin “vicis,” and properly has two syllables.

ye - “Ye,” meaning “you,” and “ye,” meaning “the,” are archaic forms of Anglo-Saxon words with different pronunciations. The former rhymes with “see.” The latter comes from a character in Middle English called a thorn, which stood for a “th” sound. Manuscripts often represented the thorn as a letter resembling “y,” and early printers, who lacked a thorn character in their fonts, also used a “y” in abbreviated forms of “the.” Thus, this “ye” should be pronounced like “the,” but it’s often erroneously pronounced like the other “ye.” 

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