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TWTS: Pondering pronunciation preferences

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We get a lot of questions about words that have two pronunciations. This week, we decided to look at two of those words: status and mischievous.

When it comes to "status," which do you prefer, long "a" or short "a"? Your answer will likely reveal which side of the pond you live on.

Speakers of British English tend to use the long "a" pronunciation, while American English speakers lean toward the short "a" version.

While it's true that pronunciation can be based on geography, words like "mischievous" are a little different.

For most of us, "mischievous" comes out in one of two ways: "mis-chih-vous" or "mis-CHEE-VEE-ous." Some people may even use both pronunciations.

However, if you look up "mischievous" in the American Heritage Dictionary, you'll find only the first pronunciation. Merriam-Webster includes both, but it labels "mis-CHEE-VEE-ous" as nonstandard.

Professor Anne Curzan says this discrepancy sparked a discussion with her students about what it means to call the second pronunciation nonstandard. When Curzan polled her students, around half of them said they use the nonstandard pronunciation.

"I've been talking to friends of mine at the [University of Michigan] who also often have the pronunciation 'mis-CHEE-VEE-ous,' which I think fairly raises the question of how many people need to use a pronunciation before it becomes standard," Curzan says.

Some people will argue that we should use the standard pronunciation of "mischievous," because that's the one that better matches the spelling. Given that our language is full of words spelled differently than they sound, this seems like a pretty weak argument. What do you think?

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of Weekend Edition at Michigan Radio. She also co-hosts Michigan Radio’s weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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