English Pronunciation: Better to Laugh Than Cry

Flip through any dictionary, and you will find a wide assortment of words that have more than one sanctioned pronunciation – words such as “schism,” which can be pronounced either SKĬZ-ǝm or SĬZ-ǝm. Interestingly, the former was once regarded as incorrect but now predominates in standard American usage. But at least the meaning is the same.

Not so with heteronyms, which have identical spellings but different pronunciations and meanings. In other words, it matters greatly which pronunciation you employ. Here are a few examples:

Princeton’s heavyweight crew had a row over how they should row at the regatta.

At McCosh Infirmary, a bandage was wound around the student’s wound.

Dining Services staff had to buffet the students who stormed the buffet.

The professor fought back tears when she saw the tears in her academic gown.

“Close the door,” she said. “The RCA is getting close.”

And then there is the infamous letter sequence o-u-g-h, which is often illustrated by variations of this sentence: “A rough-coated, dough-faced ploughman strode, coughing and hiccoughing, thoughtfully through the streets of Scarborough.” Here we have eight different ways of pronouncing the same four letters – enough to inspire generations of spelling reformers but not enough to impose consistency on our unruly language.

So enjoy the fun of crafting sentences like this:  He combed the tomb for evidence of a bomb, eliciting only laughter from his daughter, who called him a monkey and a donkey, but although she was behaving more like a fiend than a friend, he decided to bury his fury.