Friday, November 06, 2009

When Hearing a Word Is Not the Same as Spelling It

When I was in my twenties I went to an informal writers’ workshop every couple of weeks. Some of us read excerpts from our latest projects—or entire works, if they were short enough.

One week, a guy named George agitated to read something he’d just had accepted by Fate magazine (a journal of the weird, occult, and related matters). Everyone frowned when he read the title, “Captain Smith’s Fear-ee Ride.”

Wouldn’t “scary” work better? I thought to myself. So did everyone else, as it turned out--but we had a rule about not interrupting a reader.

George droned on through the piece, which was about a 19th-Century ship’s captain sighting strange lights in the sky and on the sea. We let him continue, until he reached the description of what the captain saw: “Without warning, a fear-ee display lit up the sky, and—“

“Wait, wait!” several people burst out. “Did you say ‘fear-ee’?”

“Yes, why?” George asked in all innocence.

“Spell that word!” a woman named Ruth shouted.

“F-I-E-R-Y,” George came back. “Fear-ee. Is there something wrong with that?”

“It’s pronounced ‘fiery’ and not fear-ee.” Ruth told him.

“Well, I never heard anyone pronounce the word,” George returned.

That seemed unlikely, but we took his word for it. People mispronounce words all the time.

Today I noted a variation of that in a news story about an old man buying a Chevrolet Camaro. It involved a man carrying a cane, and mentioned that the subject was “touting a cane.” I had an image of the guy waving the cane, calling out, “Gotta have it, gotta have it—only twenty bucks! It’s the best cane in the world! Buy one now!” Which did not fit the story.

I read it a second time, then got it: he was toting a cane. I imagine the reporter had never heard the word “tout” or “touting” pronounced, but had heard “toting” used in relation to someone carrying something. Add to it the possibility that she had never seen the word “toting,” but had read the word “touting” and mispronounced it in her mind as "toting," and it’s easy to see where the error came in.

That’s one of the more difficult “not caught by spell-check” situations. The lesson: it pays to expand your vocabulary. Had this reporter known how “touting” is pronounced, or had read "toting" somwhere, she wouldn’t have made the mistake.


Dave Kennedy said...

Mike, I think you're right on the money with this one. I know that I'm guilty of mispronouncing words that I've only seen in writing before. Though, I can't think of an instance where it's come out and actually been mistaken for a different word.

In technology, there is a language used with databases called SQL. Its proper pronunciation is to say each letter individually - "S" "Q" "L". This is usually ignored, and it's acceptable to pronounce it "see-qwel". A little while ago, I ran into someone whom had only seen it in text, and it took me a while before I knew what this "sqwawl" of which they spoke was.

Thanks for the post!

Mark said...

Dave, back when Mike and I were young, and not invisible to young women, there developed a Small Computer System Interface, SCSI. In the northeast tech corridor, this was known as "Sexy!" In Silicon Valley, it became "Scuzzy". And when Steve Jobs said it, it became law.

There are a lot of these that I see every day. Spend time in any online community and you'll see "For all intensive purposes" and "definately" and plenty more.

Michael A. Banks said...

Oh, yes! "For all intensive purposes." That's one of my favorites, Mark. Maybe it came from too many radio people talking to fast.

"Definately" grates.

Lovi said...

I used to say "fearee,"--admittedly up until this point. (Go ahead and laugh.) I don't think the problem is not hearing others say it, but not hearing others say it while looking at the word. A friend of mine and I used to say "drout" instead of "draft" for the word "draught." It's not that we didn't know the word and its pronunciation, it's just that they didn't match up in reading and pronunciation because we never heard it pronounced elsewhere.

Dave Kennedy said...

Mark, I've never heard Scuzzy pronounced Sexy. I'm gonna share that with some compsci buddies the next time it comes up. Thanks.

Michael A. Banks said...

Your experience shows that George's take on pronouncing "fiery" wasn't unique. None of us in the writers' group had heard it.

Drought is pronounced "drowt" in some places. And it certainly looks like drowt. I guess it's a matter of whether you've heard the word and connected it with a written form.