10 Words You Mispronounce That Make People Think You’re an Idiot

It’s been said, though we’re not sure by whom, that it is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt. But sometimes we’ve got to open our mouths so use this handy guide to make sure, at the very least, you’re saying the words right.

Don’t worry, I won’t waste your time with the elementary school lessons about how to accurately pronounce “library,” “February,” or “arctic”… although I will take this opportunity to note that if you’re discussing a library and still dropping the first ‘R’, there’s a very good chance that your friends and/or colleagues are laughing at you behind your back.

I won’t trouble you with a lecture covering how some of the words you use actually aren’t words at all. If you’re using words like “snuck,” “brang,” or “irregardless,” (no, none of those are real words) a magazine article – much less one written by me – is not going to solve your problems.

What I will do is offer up a rudimentary form of help, in terms of how to properly pronounce relatively common words that are bound to show up in your daily life. These tips will not seal the deal in a job interview or on a date (I can especially vouch for the “date” scenario) but if pronunciation continues to be a potential chink in your armor, your problems will soon be solved.

Thus, behold, People of the Internet… the ten most important words you should learn to pronounce, if you would like to appear reasonably knowledgeable about your own language.

ATHLETE

  • Incorrect pronunciation: ath – a – leet

  • Correct pronunciation: ath – leet

This may have been more helpful before the media blitz that was the Summer Olympics but it is a very valuable lesson to have for the future. It applies to “athlete” and any derivative (biathlon, triathlon, decathlon, etc.) and, honestly, I’m sad that I even have to point this out: there is no vowel between the ‘H’ and the ‘L’ in any of these words. There never has been. Let the dream die.

ESCAPE / ESPRESSO / ET CETERA

  • Incorrect pronunciation: ex – cape / ex – presso / ex – set – err – uh

  • Correct pronunciation: ess – cape / ess – presso / ett – set – err – uh

Yes, a three-for-one deal, but only because this one is dually very common and very simple to fix. For some reason, we of the English tongue have an obsession with changing any ‘S’ to an ‘X’, if it follows an ‘E’ sound; call it the Exxon Indoctrination. These words are spelled phonetically… let’s try to respect that.

Also: the yuppie kids will really respect you, if you master “espresso” and “et cetera” – what more motivation do you need?

NUCLEAR

  • Incorrect pronunciation: nuke – you – lerr

  • Correct pronunciation: new – clee – err

I’m going to try to get through this one without a President Bush joke. All right, so, despite the fact that it’s 2008, this is a word with which we’re somehow still struggling. Like most of the words on this list, “nuclear” is spelled EXACTLY AS IT IS SUPPOSED TO BE PRONOUNCED and yet, people continue to screw it up worse than the War in Iraq… oh, dammit.

PRESCRIPTION / PREROGATIVE

  • Incorrect pronunciation: purr – scrip – shun / purr – ogg – uh – tiv

  • Correct pronunciation: pre – scrip – shun / pre – rogg – uh – tiv

Overlooking the fact that many people also seem to have precisely no idea as to the latter word’s true definition (I’ve had several conversations where people bizarrely substitute “prerogative” for words like “agenda”), this is another problem that can be attributed to ignorance in the arena of “Sound It Out, You Lummox.” The ‘R’ comes before the ‘E’ in both of these words. Please ercognize this erality. Sorry.

UTMOST

  • Incorrect pronunciation: up – most

  • Correct pronunciation: utt – most

In a bizarre twist, people actually became so certain of this word’s meaning that they alter its pronunciation to reflect that definition. Yes, “utmost” is an adjective synonymous with “greatest” (a term that immediately calls to mind some tangible Mount Olympus-type of vertical hierarchy and the word “upper”) but that second letter? It’s still a ‘T’.

CANDIDATE

  • Incorrect pronunciation: can – uh – dett

  • Correct pronunciation: can – da – dett

Mastering this word will help you at least sound educated in your excruciating political debates as we approach November 3. I cannot explain it any more simply than my second grade teacher once did: “You always want to have a good candidate for your CANDY DATE.” Candy date. It’s sweet and simple.

SHERBET

  • Incorrect pronunciation: sherr – berrt

  • Correct pronunciation: sherr – bet

This is one of those words that ultimately had to abandon its crusade for righteousness and now has been corrupted to the point where dictionaries may list the incorrect pronunciation as acceptable because of just how rampant the ignorance grew to be. But there’s only one ‘R’ in “sherbet,” America… no matter how awesome the rainbow flavor is, there’s still only one ‘R’.

AWRY

  • Incorrect pronunciation: aww – ree

  • Correct pronunciation: uh – rye

Up until very recently, I could not even conceive a situation where someone would mispronounce this word; it always seemed very simple, to me. However, I have heard three different people – in the world of talk radio, no less – pronounce it inaccurately in the last few months. It’s like… it’s like the mechanism that allows people to speak in an educated fashion went awry (see what I did there?).

FOR ALL INTENTS AND PURPOSES

  • Incorrect pronunciation: “for all intensive purposes”

  • Correct pronunciation: “for all intents and purposes”

All right, yes, I cheated a little bit here (for posterity’s sake, I should note that a phrase and a word are not the same thing) but this is still a very popular pronunciation mistake and one that I really feel must be addressed in a public forum. While “intensive” is absolutely a word, the clichéd saying that most people are trying to channel is all about intent. As for the rumor that I, as a younger man, frequently employed the incorrect pronunciation… no comment.

OFTEN

  • Incorrect pronunciation: off – ten

  • Correct pronunciation: off – en

If there is a bigger red flag for “I am misinformed about how to pronounce something” in our language, I have yet to encounter it. This word and its evolutionary course in American vernacular could be a cultural study unto itself.

For a while, nobody was aware that the ‘T’ was silent; this sneaky caveat had to be beaten into our brains for years and years in school. But then – in what can best be described as the greatest grammatical epiphany since someone decided that we needed a contraction to turn “I am” into a single word – people seemed to universally scream out “We get it! A silent ‘T’!”. It was a glorious day.

However, this euphoria was ultimately fleeting. At some point, the rational people of Earth decided to flip over the Buffet Table of Reason at the Banquet for Intellectual Hope and thought it best to, once again, simply start pronouncing the ‘T’ in “often.” I do not know whether this was brought on by an innate human desire to flout the rules of our world or just a collective hatred for all things associated with the establishment but it is now arguably the most frequent linguistic speed bump in the history of hyperbole. And I would like to lead the charge to restore balance.

Justin Brown is a writer and artist living in Virginia. He channels most of his mind's molten river of creativity into his blog Esteban Was Eaten!. For even more information about him, check out his website.

  • Professor

    What a crappy article with no research done.

  • linds

    It was Mark Twain who said that.

  • Ang

    How do you pronounce applicable?

    • motcollins

      I say a-PLICK-a-ble, but if someone says AP-lick-a-ble it’s cool.

  • Brandon

    I appreciate the content of articles like these, but I despise the arrogant attitude behind them. Some people are linguistically gifted, but most are not. I would also submit that if you were to walk a mile in the shoes of the “uneducated” you might be on the other side of ridicule.

    In summary, I bet you look like a wiener when swinging a hammer.

    • FransSusan

      I look fabulous swinging a hammer and I pronounce words correctly, too. Yes, I do have an arrogant attitude about it. I paid attention in English classes in high school, so I learned these kinds of things.

  • Phyllis Cole

    Please add REALTOR to your list…Real-A-TOR is incorrect…please say REAL-TOR!

  • Notanidiot

    Supposedly is another one often pronounced wrong. So many people say ‘supposubly’, and it’s sooo annoying. lol

  • Becky

    My pet peeve…Alzheimer’s is NOT oldtimer’s ! Yes, it is a disease that generally afflicts “old timer’s” but it is not oldtimer’s, it is Alzheimer’s !

  • Mark

    Supposedly…not “supposibly”. Drives me nuts!

  • Kevin

    Oh look, OED says the t isn’t silent.
    http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/often?q=often
    Boom goes the Logic Bomb.
    And as far as bigger red flags for poor pronunciation? How about EVERY ONE BEFORE THAT IS. How would that even be the biggest red flag often, when he makes the clear case that nuclear, candidate, escape, athlete, and the others are all pronounced as written?
    Maybe we need a list of 10 things that tip that you are a blogger vice a journalist. Hint 1 – you don’t do research and just post what you feel.

  • Greg Morgan

    Mr. Brown, I hope you didn’t really write, “none of those are real words,” instead of “none of those is a real word.” If you did, I’m laughing at you for being such an idiot.

  • FromGrindToWhine

    Yes! But you forgot to include “supposedly,” which is far too often pronounced, “supposably.” That one always makes my ears itch

  • Nora

    Someone who splits infinitives shouldn’t be talking. Also, a lot of these can be explained by phonological rules. Pronouncing “utmost” as “upmost” is just a matter of assimilation, like pronouncing “good boy” as “goob boy”, or pronouncing the “n” in “tenth” with a dental place of articulation. (You probably don’t even know you do it!”) And I’m sure you don’t say “prescription” but instead, “pruh-scription,” with a schwa.

  • AManCalledDa-da

    Sure, Bert.

  • Pingback: Sunday Best 2.23.14 » honesty with andrea e.

  • Robin

    “Supposedly” should be pronounced “sup-pose-ed-lee”, not “sup-pose-ub-lee”. Please include it in the list.

  • Allen Ray Mickle Jr.

    Considering language meaning/pronunciation, etc., is ultimately determined by usage, some of these are no longer incorrect, based upon universal acceptance. If everyone pronounces the “t” in often then that is how it will be pronounced. No amount of hand-wringing and complaining will stop it from being so.

  • Brian Ehlin

    You should have check this for yourself, but here it is: snuck is a word. 1590–1600; variant of Middle English sniken. Brang of course, is not. Irregardless is a word. Although a nonstandard word used by both educated professionals and uneducated persons such as journalists and idiots; it has become accepted as an alternative to regardless.

  • Monk21

    That is a pity. I was so happy to see that someone was trying to educate people on how to pronounce those words and at the end you decided to comment on “often”. I regret to inform you that both “ofen” and “ofTen” are correct.

  • EEKittredge

    As a lawyer, I keep running into people who insist on pronouncing “quitclaim” as “quick claim.”

  • Randy

    A word is an effective word if it conveys the meaning as the speaker intended to the listener. Nobody likes a grammar Nazi.

  • Leon Southerly

    people aren’t dumb for pronouncing silent letters. people are dumb for putting them in words in the first place

  • bluebonics

    Holy prescriptivist drivel. You missed the clue on how language works by a pronunciation being included in a dictionary, didn’t you?

  • Ruth

    Justin – from your picture you appear too young to remember JFK….but just FYI, he was the one that started the nu-cular revolution…not George Bush.

  • Dana King

    The one that I’ve been hearing as of late is; impor’ant, in place of important. For whatever reason, maybe an accent of some sort, this pronunciation has been popping up more often when watching the talking heads on tv.

  • Amy

    I ain’t even able to remember why I got here. SQUIRREL!

  • Roy Batty

    You lost me at “irregardless,” which is very much in fact a word.

  • Ray Dickey

    Often was pronounced with a t -sound until the 17th century, when a pronunciation without the [t] Show IPA came to predominate in the speech of the educated, in both North America and Great Britain,and the earlier pronunciation fell into disfavor. Common use of a spelling pronunciation has since restoredthe [t] for many speakers, and today [aw-fuhn] and [awf-tuhn] [or [of-uhn] and [of-tuhn] ] exist side by side. Although it is still sometimes criticized, often with a [t] is now so widelyheard from educated speakers that it has become fully standard once again.

    Then there’s real-a-tor. Um, it’s spelled like it should be pronounced, real-tor. Or lax-adaisical. Arghh!

  • ez2cme

    If there’s only one R in sherbet, then pronounce “colonel” for me!

  • midgetHead

    List written by a high school freshmen trying to get into the yearbook club and AV club by only insisting that his words are correct, 27% of the time. But he’s mostly right, so don’t put my name on any of those clubs! “Often”-”Off-ten” is actually correct. “Off-en” is what you say when you’re in a hurry to do something! “Off-Ten” is the correct way to say the word.

    (Fucking moron author can’t even make contractions! “I do not know”.)

    This kid is an English major. You can spot their superiority complex a mile away and know that they are gonna disappoint their paying families!

  • midgetHead

    Authored by: Some English major who has disappointed parents.

  • Just A Bloke

    This article is a prime example of someone who has far too much time on their hands. Besides, people pronouce words differently because of dialect, & accent etc, which kinda makes this whole article meaningless. Vase, varse. Vit-ermins, vytermins. Patro-nize, patron-ize. & so on.
    Right, now that’s cleared up, back to the World Cup & some top quality football, well football anyway, pronouced football or foo-tball.

  • Mad_dog

    Thanks, grammar (n)(a)(z)(i). Now, instead of sounding uneducated, I can correct people and sound like a pomposs (a)(s)(s). GRAMMATIK MACHT FREI!!!!!

  • jim b

    Does anybody else suffer from oft-ten-aphobia. When I hear it, I feel a stabbing pain in my brain. I’ve listened to it evolve from the soft pronunciation “of-en” to the commonly used “oft-ten”.
    The return to the pronunciation of the “T”, I believe was brought back to prominence by former athletes turned sports announcers.
    In most cases the level of their educations were overlooked to keep them in the game. They thought that pronouncing “often” phonetically was a show of intelligence. Now more and more TV viewers have taken to using this instant grammatical override to highlight their speech.
    It is a “sub-tle” “pee-sy-chology that “soft-tens” the “cast-tle” walls with a “sa-word” of “ka-nowledge” as we “whist-till” a merry tune and dance an endless “bal-let” with “hon-nor” “throu-gah” fields of “rasp-berries” on an “is-land” of ignorance as we “list-ten” to the “pee-honetic” pronunciation of “oft-ten”.

  • Just A Bloke

    As far as I can tell, language exsists for the purpose of communication. So, if someone can understand what you’re saying, who cares if you’re not pronoucing the words in a certain way. Often when people correct other’s speech they know what is meant, so why correct it?
    For example,” I ain’t doing that. I think you mean “I’m not doing that”, ain’t isn’t a word”. The person knew what was meant, so the communication was successful, but the hearer still felt the need to correct the speech. Pointless.
    Either is pronouced ee-va, or i-va, who’s to say which is right, the point is both are understood.
    Pasta is pronouced both pass-ta, & pars-ta. If you mention eating or food, most people will catch on quickly.
    Point is, if people understand the words you’re saying, it really don’t matter how you pronouce them.

  • chimera

    Do you know what makes you look like an idiot? Writing an obnoxious listicle on pronunciations without bothering to check any actual dictionaries.

    Both Merriam-Webster and the Oxford English Dictionary list “off-ten” as a legitimate pronunciation of “often.”

    I wonder if Justin Brown pronounces the T in the word “oft,” which is the root word of “often.” I suspect that he doesn’t even know that “oft” is a word.

  • ghfghfd

    jhgfjdtjfgjhj

  • ghfghfd

    im finna go an do dis rite her

  • Saige

    Virilitas, to be specific, the use of “pacific” or “pacifically” is actually a speech impediment.