Friday, November 2, 2007

Language mavens, we’ve come so far

Talk about preaching to the choir. You’re not reading this column — or any column about language — unless you’re already converted to the mission, the goal, the lifelong quest. You and I are here to ferret out abuses of our language and, even more important, to correct them!

We’ve come so far, you and I. We’ve effectively stopped people from saying “No problem” instead of “You’re welcome.” We’ve stopped others from saying or writing “at this point in time,” “tuna fish” and even “12 noon.” Shoot, we’ve even corrected all the abuses of personal pronouns, so we’ll never again hear “It belongs to her and I.” We’ve done all that.

Haven’t we?

Let’s pretend that we have. And with that kind of success under our collective belt, let me give you some items that you, yourself, language maven that you are, might benefit from. Today’s column is for you, babe.

We’ll start with acronyms. The mistake is in thinking that “acronym” sounds fancier than, but is really a synonym for, “abbreviation.” It does sound fancier, but the two words are not interchangeable. IBM and HTML are abbreviations; NATO and AIDS are acronyms. Can you figure out the difference?

An acronym is a word. Yes, it comes from the initial letters of a group of words, but it has its own pronunciation. So here’s the easy test: If you pronounce each letter of something (IBM), it’s an abbreviation. If you pronounce the letters as if they comprised a new word (NATO), it’s an acronym.

There are some well-known lowercase acronyms, including laser (for light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) and scuba (for self-contained underwater breathing apparatus). I mention that because it leads us to the next just-for-you-I-hope-you-enjoy-it item: The word “lowercase” is just that, a single word. Same goes for uppercase. (But remember — “under way” should be two words.)

Now let’s talk about some of your pronunciations. This’ll be fun, yes? (We can start with making sure you never pronounce that word “pronounciations.”) Some people — even those who are particularly literate in many ways — pronounce “particularly” this way: “particurly.” Dropping one of the word’s sounds or syllables is called an elision, and it is not something we want to do.

How about this one — have you ever heard people say “finely” instead of “finally”? I’m sure you have never done that yourself, but you might KNOW people who have. The same goes for “didn’t.” In an earlier column, I talked about the current trend of over-pronouncing that word, making it “did-dint.” But today’s topic of elisions means we need to ensure that we never say “dint,” dropping the second syllable.

Being a native of Houston, I’d like us to talk about the different ways we pronounce the letter “h.” The word is Houston, not You-ston. There is a huge hill over there, not a yuge hill. And while we’re at it, let me encourage you not to say, “It was an historic event.” If you pronounce the “h,” then precede it with an “a”; if the “h” is silent and the word starts with a vowel sound, then swing right into an “an.”

That means you would correctly say, “It was an honest mistake, the event was a historic one — all in all, a horrid tale.” Yes, some sophisticated people like to say “an historic.” I think that they think it makes them seem even more sophisticated. La-dee-da. Some say, “Well, it’s British!” (So, it must be classy, eh?) It might be British, in that some British accents give us, “She’s an ‘istorian, Guv,” with the “h” being dropped.

In truth, so many people say it that it is not considered wrong. But you and I know better. Don’t say “an history book,” don’t say “an historical day” and don’t say “that was an hysterical joke.” Not even in Houston.

Thinking of things British and with a nod to both Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal, let us all promise that we will never, ever, even accidentally, pronounce Wimbledon with a “t.” It might take some vigilance, but “Wimbleton” is flat out wrong.

A final thought for you. One day I was with Greensboro College President Craven Williams, and he laughed at a sign in front of a house. It said: “For Sale by Owner.” I asked why he was chuckling, and he said, “Aren’t they all?”

Think about it.


No comments: