Five commonly mispronounced words

Spring Grove Area High School

Illustration by Samantha Dellinger

It’s easy to shake our heads and tsk-tsk when someone else is mispronouncing a word — but what about the ones we mispronounce? As this list below demonstrates, some of the seemingly most innocuous words in the English language are the biggest offenders when it comes to mispronunciation. Check out five commonly mispronounced words below to see how your speaking-savvy measures up.

1. Asterisk — This is an awkward word to say, but it is in fact pronounced the way it appears, not as “asterix” or “astrix.” Don’t let quick speech cause you to make this error.

2. Et cetera — This word is also phonetic, but the first “t” in “et cetera” just doesn’t flow off the tongue like the incorrect pronunciation “excetera.” To compound the difficulties with this Latin expression, the abbreviation is also commonly misspelled.

3. Mischievous — This word mischievously aims to trick your tongue more than once within its three syllables. The correct pronunciation is “MIS-chev-ous,” but you might be tempted to emphasize the second syllable and add an extra one, as in “mis-CHEEV-i-ous.”

4. Parenthesis — The singular of this word is so rare that it’s almost universally incorrectly mispronounced as “parenthesee.” However, the spelling clearly indicates the correct pronunciation: “parenthesis.”

5. Utmost — It is of the utmost importance that you pronounce (and spell) this word as “utmost,” not “upmost.”

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3 Responses to Five commonly mispronounced words

  1. Rebecca says:

    Great article! I think these days we all rely on SPELL CHECK! Etcetera is one word I recently had to double check with.

  2. Steve says:

    But all of these exemplify perfectly natural linguistic changes.

    “Asterisk~asterix” is from a process called metathesis, which switches two sounds. In English, it commonly occurs in “sk~x”. If you lose the “e”, it’s from the process of elision (more specifically, syncope), the same reason “fifth” has become “fith” and “family” is “famly”.

    “Et cetera” is possibly dissimilation, or possibly reanalysis of the phrase since so many words borrowed from Latin (and its kin) start with “eks”, and I can’t think of a single other phrase/word borrowed from the Romance languages (most of the major ones being languages I’m fluent in) that maintains “ets”.

    “Mischiev-ee-ous” is formed from the process epenthesis (or more specifically, anaptyxsis), which is the addition of a vowel sound. I can’t think of why the stress changes, other than to maintain the proparoxytonic nature of the word (stress on the third-to-last syllable).

    “Parenthesis” can lose that terminal “s” through the process of elision (more specifically apocope).

    And “utmost” can become “upmost” through assimilation (labialization).

    So no, these aren’t “mispronunciations”, just variations and changes that are occuring in English. All of these processes have gotten English to where it is today and they will keep moving English forward into the English of the future. Language is not set in stone and is therefore constantly changing over time. If that weren’t the case, we’d be speaking like Shakespeare, or Chaucer, or the author of Beowulf, or the original Germanic tribes that settled in Engla Land, or….. I’m sure you get my point by now. Language change is also neither good nor bad. It’s just change.

  3. evelyn wagaman says:

    Agreed that language changes. I’m just going by what is currently standard English as found in a dictionary. Your explanations offer valid reasons for WHY words are mispronounced, but until the dictionary is changed to reflect the common (mis)pronunciations of these words, they will still technically be incorrect. “Incorrect” often implies “bad,” but in the case of language, it means, simply, nonstandard.

    I guess what it comes down to is that until a formal change is made to the dictionary (which I am aware happens often), I still have grounds to call these nonstandard pronunciations wrong. The same is true of grammar – one thing I have been noticing recently is the omission of a comma between the day of the week and the month in dates (Thursday March 21 vs. Thursday, March 21). This drives me CRAZY! One day, it will probably become standard to omit the comma, at which point I will not be able to complain. When that day comes, it will not be good or bad, as you will agree, but simply a change. I believe English’s capacity to adapt to meet the needs of its speakers is actually a positive thing, though admittedly it’s human nature to be irritated when something we’re used to changes.

    Readers have had strong opinions on this article, and it’s incited discussion, which is awesome! Rebecca and Steve, thanks for commenting!

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