Tag Archives: pronunciation

Don’t go it alone

As I woke up again on the West Coast this morning, with nary an idea for what to say today, I received a comment from a reader and fellow WordPress blogger, Olga, who teaches English in Russia.

Olga said, “I’d be interested in your opinion as a Word Nymph on learning foreign languages by oneself,” and pointed me to her post on the same subject. I scrolled through a few more e-mail messages that came in overnight. There was a piece of spam, with the subject heading, “Want to learn a new language fast? This contained a link that would not open. But Olga and this spammer got me thinking.

In her post, Olga converses with her reader, Yulia, about the pros and cons of teaching oneself a second, or third or fourth, language. This dialogue is quite interesting, especially as it takes place in English between two non-native speakers, who both write English extremely well. But that’s not the point.

I once learned Spanish, but it took me four years attending a university—and time studying in Spain—to do it. Lack of practice over 30 years has placed me closer to the starting line that I’d like.

As Yulia points out, it’s possible to learn the fundamentals of grammar and sentence structure from a book, but pronunciation is more difficult to learn in isolation. We need to hear words pronounced, we need to practice our pronunciation in the presence of others. Tapes can be helpful, but digital media don’t converse. It is in conversing that we learn.

It’s not that teaching oneself can’t be done. I know that because my son taught himself Italian at age 10. Of course, he didn’t become fluent; his goal was to be able to read a menu and order his own meals while on vacation with us in Tuscany. He had received a pocket-sized workbook for Christmas, took it to school and studied it every afternoon in after school care, while sitting in a corner alone. At least that’s what his day care providers told me. Indeed, when we arrived in Italy the following July, he had amassed an impressive vocabulary of practical words and phrases. Even though he learned in a vacuum, his pronunciation was pretty good as well and he exercised his new skill with confidence.

Likewise, my father is in the process 0f teaching himself Spanish. When he began thinking about retirement, he decided this was something he ought to do. (I was voting for his learning the computer).

My father is making good progress, but he would do well to perfect his pronunciation through practice, something he is doing right now, in fact.

I believe strongly that learning—learning almost anything—best happens in community. Ideas can’t be exchanged in even a hundred years of solitude and, while it is possible to read a book, or listen to or mimic tapes, it is in the conversing that learning a language happens.

Based on my experience, I’d recommend taking a class, forming a study group, seeking out kindred spirits and doing it together. Support one another, exchange ideas, draw each other out of your shells.

And, take it from me, a little sangria never hurts.

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Filed under All Things Wordish, Family and Friends, Travel

Anchor away

It looks pretty certain that Katie Couric will be stepping down as anchor of CBS Evening News. I have mixed feelings about this. Not that anyone asked.

I was a latecomer to the Katie Couric fan club, but am a member nonetheless. I didn’t watch her on Today until fairly late on her stint there. And, it’s embarrassing to admit, I didn’t watch her when she was a local reporter here in Washington.

It wasn’t until time of the 1992 presidential campaign that I gave her a try. She was a little cutesy for my taste and I just wasn’t comfortable getting my news from such a pixie, opting instead for the more serious Paula Zahn. One event that turned me away from Katie was when she interviewed Ross Perot and kept putting words in his mouth. He would say something and then she’d say, “So what you’re saying is…” and it wasn’t anywhere close to what he was saying. I didn’t go back for a while after that.

Something else that has bothered me about Katie Couric is always her pronunciation of “ing;” she ends every gerund with “een.” This is especially distracting during coverage of the Olympics, what with the swim-een, dive-een, run-een, skate-een and ski-een.

But I’ve gotten past all that.

Over the years I’ve seen Katie Couric mature as a newswoman; I consider her one of the best. Her assignment to the CBS anchor post was well deserved, even if she ultimately doesn’t feel it suits her interests. I think she does a terrific job with her 60 Minutes segments. Her interviewing skills have come a long way. Just ask Sarah Palin.

As far as ratings are concerned, I’m guilty. I’m a Brian Williams Fan. But I often watch Katie at 6:30 and Brian at 7:00. If Katie feels constrained behind the anchor desk, she should find another outlet for her talent and personality. If CBS blames her for the news show’s ratings, I’m not sure the blame is merited. No matter.

Katie Couric deserves to be happy and professionally fulfilled. She has lost a husband and a sister, reared two daughters and raised awareness and funds for an evil disease. She has more than proven her acumen as a competent newswoman. She’s even tweeting out Words of the Day and then using each one in a sentence. Most of all, she takes her work seriously while not taking herself too seriously.

So Katie, go do what makes you happy. Host your own show in your very own style. Come back to Washington. Go back and replace Meredith on Today (please!). Whatever you decide, you have my support.

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Filed under Movies, Television and Radio, News, Politics

Grammar on the Acela Express

Yesterday I was on an Amtrak train rolling along the East Coast. Compulsive public eavesdropper that I am, I tuned into a loud conversation among three gentlemen in the row in front of me. One, a well-groomed young man in a good suit, was obviously auditioning for the approval of the other two, perhaps as a job applicant or an eager salesman. He said, “Yeah, I coulda went to Boston University.” Then he proceeded to begin several sentences with “Me and him…”

I’ll never know the outcome of the meeting, as the gentlemen disembarked before I did.

Boarding the train and taking the place of the three gentlemen were two ladies. Neither was a native English-speaker, but one was a bit more fluent and confident than the other. However, in contrast to Sir Brags-a-lot, both women spoke impeccable English. One looked up at the sign above the seat and asked her friend, “how is that word pronounced?” I was impressed that she cared enough to ask. Her friend responded, “aisle,” like “‘I’ll,’ as in ‘I’ll be back in a moment.”’ There was conversation about not pronouncing the “s,” as with “island.” The woman more in the know assured her friend, “English can be confusing.” Her friend said, “Yes, but it is such a beautiful language.”

I’ve never thought of English as being a beautiful language necessarily. I find the romance languages more pleasing to the ear, even if I don’t understand everything. Perhaps the rhythms and intonations of a foreign language are what make it beautiful to our ears.

I do believe English is one of the most difficult languages to learn as second language, with all of its exceptions and varied pronunciations. English also poses challenges for us native speakers, which may be why I still enjoy studying it. That said, perhaps I should have been less judgmental of the fellow who could have went to BU.

Oh, whom am I kidding?

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Filed under All Things Wordish, Travel

Say what?

You gotta love Paula Deen. She’s a word nymph’s dream, blessherheart.

As a celebrity chef, she’s not my favorite. She lays it on a little thick for my taste—everything from the abundance of saturated fat to the exaggerated drawl. (Please let it be known I appreciate the difference between an accent and a drawl.)

I try to love her, really I do. Largely, it’s that I have trouble getting past her mispronunciations and speech gaffes.

For the record, “vinaigrette” has three syllables. It’s vin-ai-grette. Not vin-e-gar-ette. She’s not alone; restaurant servers aplenty mispronounce the salad dressing. Actually, Paula stretches it to five syllables, splitting the last one in two, like a generous slice of her pink lemonade cake.

But another goof in the same episode as vinaigrette got me thinking of another common mistake that we haven’t talked about here. She said she greases the pan to “assure it doesn’t stick.”

Shall we go over “assure” versus “ensure” versus “insure?” It must be confusing to some, so let’s give it a shot. Those who already know this can skip ahead to today’s assignment.*

Insure: to guarantee against loss or harm. The diamond is insured against theft. Think “insurance.”

Ensure: to make sure. I will grease the pan to ensure the cake doesn’t stick. Think: I drink Ensure to ensure I get enough nutrients.

Assure:  to inform [someone] positively. “Assure” almost always, if not always, precedes an object. I assure you, it will not happen again. The doctor assured him the drug was safe. Think: Rest assured. (you, implied, are the object)

Pretty simple.

*What, besides vinaigrette, do you find to be the most common food mispronunciations? In the meantime, here’s one person’s take. Note another Paula citation, for stretching “paprika” to four syllables. Good, I’m not the only one who counts.

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Filed under All Things Wordish, Food, Movies, Television and Radio

Correctile dysfunction

When it comes to matters of grammar and pronunciation, I observe two kinds of people:  those who appreciate being corrected so they can learn from their mistakes and those who are offended by being corrected.

One might argue that it depends on the tone and context of the correction. Certainly, most people would not care to be schooled in a harsh or a humiliating manner. My experience is that some people are open to learning and some are not. Somewhere in between are those who say they appreciate being reminded of the correct way to write and speak, but turn around and resort to old habits. I guess that’s why they’re called habits.

I put myself in the first category. While it is never fun to learn I’ve committed a grammatical error or mispronunciation, especially as someone who claims to know a fair amount about such things, I desire to learn and improve. I admit there are rules I don’t understand. There are several I have trouble remembering. This is one reason for the Red Pen Invitation I extend on this blog’s About page and also why I confess to being on a lifelong journey to get it right. I admit it stings a bit when a reader calls me on an error or challenges a statement, but I’m grateful for the lesson.

When I choose to correct others—usually family members or close friends—I try to be judicious and kind. As much as I’d like, I don’t correct anyone’s children but my own. Believe me, for every time I hear or read a loved one’s error, I let slide another nine. Where I step on shaky ground is in assuming everyone is as enthusiastic as I am about getting it right.

What about those in the second category? Those who say, essentially, “I’ve pronounced it that way since I was seven and there’s no way I’m going to start changing now.” Or “I know that’s the rule but it doesn’t make sense to me, so I am going to keep saying it incorrectly.” Or “Frankly, I don’t care what the difference is between ‘who’ and ‘whom,’ ‘its’ and ‘it’s,’ or when to use ‘I’ and when to use ‘me.’” “I don’t care.”

What I’d ask readers to consider is:  which kind of person are you when it comes to being corrected? Provided the corrector is polite and judicious, are you open or are you offended?

If you’re in the former group, do you have a process for remembering what you’ve learned? Do you write it down or come up with a clever mnemonic? Create an occasion to use it in a sentence?

If you’re in the latter group, what’s your reasoning for closed ears? Do you consider critique a nuisance or a blow to the ego? Are you apathetic about such matters? Or do you believe correct grammar and proper speech are unimportant?

My eyes and ears are open. Tell me and maybe I’ll stand corrected.

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Three-quarters of a year in review

As another year draws to a close, we see psychology and behavior experts appearing in great numbers on the news and talk shows to advise us on our New Year’s resolutions.

On the last day of 2009, one example seemed a little odd amongst the goals of losing weight, finding a job, getting out of debt and repairing relationships. One particular expert said, “for example, if your New Year’s resolution is starting a blog, . . .” I recall thinking, that’s odd. Who would start a blog as a New Year’s resolution?

I suppose the idea percolated within my mind for a month or two, because around the end of February, I started thinking more about it. I launched this one on March 30th and today marks my 233rd blog post of 2010.

After I first had the idea, it took me a while to settle on subject matter. I envisioned a quirky blend of Erma Bombeck and William Safire, who probably were never in the same room together, nor had much in common while they were alive. I tried to define themes within the About Word Nymph page, which still lacks proper cohesion. When people ask me what my blog is about, I tell them it is about language and life. I should probably squeeze that into a tagline somewhere.

If you are new here and are trying to figure out what this place is about, try going to that sidebar over on the right, and searching Topics. Perhaps you like the posts having to do with language but have no use for stories of the blogger’s life stories, or vice versa. If you’re a wordie, look under “All Things Wordish” and read my spin on pleonasms, mondegreens, portmanteaus, bdelygmias, oronyms, toponyms and absolute adjectives, or my gripes about malapropisms, mispronounced words and misunderstood song lyrics. If you want to read about my clumsiness and stupidity, “Foibles and Faux Pas” is for you.

If you are just now stumbling on to Word Nymph, might I suggest starting with a few of my favorites:

On Language:

Not very nice
Not a mute point
Let’s talk for a moment about momentarily
Did you want to ask me that again?
The ants are my friends
Repeat redundancy

 On Life:

Blink and you’ll miss it
Golden Girls
Woof it down
Joined at the unbelted waist
The other woman
Not the end of the world

Crossovers:

Fashion nonsense
Little old lady who?
Justice I am, without one plea
Character study

My personal jury (composed of 12 of my personalities) is still out as to whether Word Nymph was the wisest project for 2010. I will say, however, that the best part by far has been the interaction I enjoy with readers. So, please, everyone, keep your comments, compliments and criticisms coming.

May you wake up tomorrow feeling well and inspired to take on something worthwhile in the New Year.

Cheers.

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Filed under All Things Wordish, Foibles and Faux Pas, Holidays, Technology and Social Media

A[n] honorary language convention

A few days ago, a reader asked me to address the subject of indefinite articles preceding words beginning with the letter “h.”

I reviewed my understanding of the rules pertaining to the subject and set it aside pending consultation of a few sources. At the same time, I suspected this might be one of those rules that vary by region and knew I’d have to take that into account as I addressed it.

The timing is apt, as we already have a rousing international debate going, following my comments yesterday about whether periods and commas go inside or outside quotation marks, another issue lacking global agreement.

I was tickled to hear from readers yesterday, who wrote in from such exotic places as Belo Horizonte, Brisbane, Canberra, Jakarta, Lima, Manila, Ontario, Oxford, Vancouver and Tucson on the matter of inside-versus-outside-the-quotes issue, even if they didn’t agree with me. Especially if they didn’t agree with me.

So let’s look at indefinite articles and see if we can keep this global dialogue going.

The question before us: Which indefinite article, “a” or “an,” precedes a word beginning with “h?”

The consensus I glean from U.S. and international sources is that “a” is used before words beginning with “h” unless the “h” is silent, in which case “an” is used.

Many have noticed, as have I, that “an” has come to precede words in which the “h” is pronounced; for example, historic, as “an historic event.”

I’d be inclined to give a little latitude where regional pronunciations vary with regard to the “h.” In the United States, we’d likely say, “an herb,” though Martha Stewart and select others opt for the European pronunciation and, therefore, would use a different indefinite article: “a herb.”

I’d welcome comments by my fellow wordies from around the globe. Better yet, wouldn’t it be fun to convene a global summit on language differences? Unlike the World Trade Organization or the World Health Organization or the International Standards Organization, which strive for international standardization, the goal of the GSLD could be  to understand and celebrate regional approaches to language.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not for linguistic anarchy. While there are more than one authoritative style guide, I prefer to choose one and stick to it. Moreover, where style guides agree, I advocate for consistent adherence, at least within U.S. borders. But if we Yankees prefer to keep our punctuation tucked neatly within our quotation marks, and use “an” preceding an “h,” and you English speakers abroad adhere to your own national standards, then I applaud you. I’d also like to sit across a table from you and continue the conversation, maybe sink our teeth in to the Oxford comma, because we obviously share a passion for words.

Does Geneva have room for one more international organization? Is there an honorific (or a honorific?) who’s willing to serve as chair?

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Filed under All Things Wordish, Politics, Travel