A special kind of dyslexia

dyslexiaWords beginning with per- or pre- can tempt you to reverse letters, even if you don’t have dyslexia. Some cases seem related to regional pronunciations, and others are just laziness. A few of them are funny and, of course, you would never say them.

But others are probably lurking in your vocabulary somewhere and you might be surprised to learn their correct spellings and pronunciations.

How often have you heard someone say this:

  • I need to get my perscription refilled. (prescription)
  • This course has some perequisites. (prerequisites)
  • Do whatever you like – it’s your perogative. (prerogative)
  • Who can perdict the winner? (predict)
  • There’s a perponderance of corruption in the city council. (preponderance)
  • I just love blackberry perserves. (preserves)

And the reverse, in writing as well as in speaking:

  • The group will preform a Beethoven symphony. (perform)
  • The runners were covered with prespiration. (perspiration)
  • Line A must be prependicular to Line B. (perpendicular)
  • If you presist in this behavior, you will be punished. (persist)
  • I can’t help it – I’m so preturbed about the situation! (perturbed)
  • What are you – a prevert? (pervert)

More of these reversals happen in pronunciation than in writing, but I’ve seen several of them written. By people who should know better. Some could be typos, and a few will not trigger a Spellchecker alert because they are legitimate words. Preform, for example, is a word. It just doesn’t mean the same thing as perform. If you’re the least bit uncertain about a pre- or per- word, you might want to look it up before using it in a business presentation, a document, or even an email or Facebook post.

If you perfer to be preceived as percise, prehaps I can presuade you to take percautions before you become a prepetrator of this less-than-prefect practice, placing you in a percarious position … premanently.

But if you’re determined to insult someone, I must admit that “PREE-vert” has a deliciously nasty ring to it.

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Wheelbarrels and rollycoasters

wheelbarrowI’ve never been a fan of baby talk, even when babies do it. It’s bad enough that parents (and grandparents) encourage it by laughing at the adorable tot’s consonant substitutions, but when they do it themselves, it sets a confusing example.

Surely a child’s language development is seriously delayed every time he hears an adult say, “Aw, wook at him cute widdle toes …How old are you? Fwee?”

I’ve observed the same phenomenon when native English speakers, in trying to communicate with native Spanish speakers, speak English with (their idea of) a Spanish accent. It sounds ridiculous and is both confusing and condescending to the Spanish speaker. Maybe adults think speaking in baby talk makes them somehow more understandable to the child. I always imagine babies thinking, “What the <bleep> is wrong with you?”

Despite years of hearing baby talk, many children grow up to speak correctly. Gradually they listen to adults on television, teachers in their schools, speech therapists (surprise!) … and they figure out most of it. But some words have a harder time than others in making the transition from playpen to board room.

A shocking number of adults never completely graduated from baby talk, even if they don’t realize it. Here are three words that, when mispronounced, suggest the speaker needs a nap:

  • Wheelbarrow (not wheelbarrel or wheelborrow). It contains neither the word barrel nor the word borrow. The barrow part rhymes with narrow.
  • Roller coaster (not rolly coaster). The fact that it is, indeed, rolly does not excuse putting that word in its name.
  • Kindergarten (not kindygarden or kinnygarden). It’s from German, where kinder means children. But that doesn’t give us a pass to mangle kinder and half-translate the rest to garden—even though that’s literally what it means.

The cuteness associated with baby talk decreases rapidly after about the age of two, and is completely gone by the time you start elementary school. So if you’re still saying words like this, don’t be surprised if your co-workers (instead of gathering for cake in the break room) chip in and buy you a dictionary for your birfday.

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Case of the missing zh

conciereI get it. French words are mysterious and unpronounceable. Half the letters are silent, and often it’s hard to tell which ones they are. We Americanize some French words, but not others.

The most thankless job must be teaching French pronunciation to teenagers in the Midwest. “Shape your mouth as if you were saying oooh, but then say eeee. And there’s no state called Illinoiz.”

But it’s baffling when we refuse to make some sounds … just because.

Exhibit A: The zh sound at the end of concierge. I’ve heard many people pronounce it conciere, as if the final ge were silent.

Exhibit B: It’s not as if Americans can’t make that sound. It occurs in dozens of English words, and many of those words did not come from French. Few people have trouble pronouncing the sound in measure, casual, seizure, television, or amnesia.

In some regions of the US, the zh sound is hardened. At least it’s not ignored.

Where’s your car?
In the grodge.

What color’s your new sofa?
Baidge.

Whatcha doin’ with them flowers?
Makin’ a COR-sodge.

Many people swear they have heard concierge pronounced conciere in hotels, by people who work there and they should know. News flash! They don’t. (Know, that is.) Many tradesmen have been known to string bob wire and build masonary walls.

I could almost understand pronouncing it con-see-AIRDGE.  But if you insist on pronouncing it without the zh sound, then I must insist that you go to a spa for a massa, gather your entoura, and take a trip to Baton Rou.

Bon voya.

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Hear it spoken

hearitspokenTelevision reporters probably don’t get the luxury of rehearsing what they read on the teleprompter, and I suppose it’s inevitable that an unfamiliar word will pop up. Still, one has to wonder where some reporters went to school and how they’ve avoided learning to pronounce relatively common words.

Here are three on-air missteps I’ve seen in just the past month:

Police found a “cash-AY” of weapons in the apartment…

The word on the screen was most likely cache, (pronounced CASH, with no accent mark), which means a hidden supply or reserve. If the reporter read cache and thought cachet, meaning stature or prestige, she should have known the word did not fit the story.

It’s hard to imagine that a communications professional would not know this one, but I also heard a young reporter read:

The effects are “SUB-tull” but researchers are hopeful that…

Subtle? I know there is a Slippery Rock University, but this one must have graduated from Under a Rock University. How can you grow to adulthood and think the “b” in subtle is pronounced? And, no, the reporter was not from another culture or language background.

But the worst, and—I must admit—funniest blunder was committed by the reporter who stared at the prompter and announced:

This might go down in the “AY-nulls” of history as the worst prank ever…

That’s right, anals. Not annals, records of events, but anals. It was the best laugh I’d had all day. Even if the error was in the teleprompter text, how can your brain lag so far behind your mouth that you don’t see that coming in time to self-correct?

Most of us are not expected to do cold reads on camera, under studio lights, intense pressure, and public scrutiny. But we might be asked to read copy that someone else wrote in a business or organizational setting. My advice? Scan through it quickly for land mines. If there’s a misspelled word that changes the meaning, be prepared to say the right word. If there’s word you’ve never heard spoken—and aren’t sure about—don’t guess in front of your audience. Ask the writer or look it up on your phone.

And go down in the annals of history.

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Talking within your headlights

funny tombstoneThe phrase “Driving within your headlights” means that at night you should slow down and be prepared to stop if you encounter an obstacle within your range of vision. If you  suddenly see a deer in the road, you have time to brake and avoid an accident.

Think of your mind as the headlights and your mouth as the brake. If you’re talking to a large group of people or – heaven forbid – on radio or television, your mind might tell you to use a fancy word guaranteed to make you sound intelligent. But somewhere between that thought and your mouth is a filter that says, in effect, “Wait! Are you sure that’s the right word?”

If neglected, that filter becomes clogged with years of accumulated blunders. If you (metaphorically) drive a military assault vehicle and no one dares to correct you, you’re probably talking through a filter full of flattened deer, raccoons, squirrels, and skunks. People might secretly giggle, but they’re not going to tell you.

Today I heard a reporter for a major television news network say a crowd was shouting epitaphs at a Muslim woman. I’ll assume you know he meant epithets – in this case, racial slurs not messages on tombstones.

Famous epitaphs come to mind: The beat goes on (Sonny Bono) and That’s all, folks! (Mel Blanc), for example. Grave marker messages can be heartfelt or clever, but I can’t think of any that would serve as nasty insults to a perfect stranger.

The bigger the audience, the more you need to pay attention to that filter. If necessary, slow down and dial it back to Cautious. If you’re only half-sure that big word is correct, substitute one you’re 100% sure is correct. You know thousands of words. Surely there’s one in there somewhere that will do the job. Oh – and you can increase the range of your headlights by building your vocabulary.

If you need a reminder, imagine an angry mob trying to heckle a victim with cries of:

Rest in peace!
In memoriam!
You angel in heaven!
Go home to the Lord, beloved sister!

Epitaphs make even worse epithets than epithets make epitaphs.

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