How to Know When You Mispronounce a Word

Cheryl Maeder/Getty Images

Mispronunciation is the act or habit of pronouncing a word in a way that is regarded as nonstandard, unconventional, or faulty. Words and names are sometimes deliberately mispronounced for comic or malicious purposes.

The traditional term for "incorrect" pronunciation is cacoepy (the opposite of orthoepy, the customary pronunciation of a word).

Because the pronunciation of a word or name is often determined by dialectal or regional conventions (which may vary widely), most contemporary linguists avoid the terms "correct" or "incorrect" in reference to pronunciation.

Examples of Mispronunciation 

  • "The word I had used to describe the Liberal lust for power was 'insatiable,' which I mispronounced as 'insat-eye-able.' To this day, I cringe in embarrassment as I reflect upon the gentle public correction by Governor General Bob Higgins and the look of undisguised dismay on the face of Prime Minister Murray."
    (Brian Mulroney, "Memoirs". McClelland & Stewart, 2007)
  • "I had to mock her Australian accent, and she had to mock my American one, because she looked at me and my mouth and saw the corollary of what I saw, and we fought violently over how to spell aluminum, which she pronounced aluminium, and when she ran off into the bamboo and came back shaking a British dictionary that spelled it her way, I was utterly defeated."
    (Jane Alison, "The Sisters Antipodes". Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009)

Local Pronunciations

"One thing visitors will notice in the Ozarks is the odd pronunciation of certain words. If you're used to hearing the state pronounced 'Mis-sour-EE,' you may be surprised to hear some natives say 'Mis-sour-AH.' Bolivar, Missouri, is 'BAWL-i-var,' while out on the edge of the Ozarks, Nevada, Missouri, is 'Ne-VAY-da,' and nearby El Dorado Springs is 'El Dor-AY-duh.'"
("Fodor's Essential USA", ed. by Michael Nalepa and Paul Eisenberg. Random House, 2008)
"If it's the first Sunday in April, it's Brougham Horse Trials. That's Brougham pronounced 'broom.' We have a tradition for odd pronunciation in Cumbria; it's why Torpenhow is pronounced not tor-pen-how but Trappenna. I know. I can't work that one out either."
(Jackie Moffa, "Shipwrecked". Bantam, 2006)

Exercise: Is There a "Right" Way to Say It?

"Think of some words that have more than one common pronunciation (coupon, pajamas, apricot, economic). Practice transcribing by writing each pronunciation in phonemic transcription. After you have done the transcription, discuss the varying pronunciations and the characteristics you associate with each pronunciation. What factors (age, race, gender, class, ethnicity, education, etc.) correlate with each pronunciation, and why do you think you have those associations? Are there some words for which you adopt the pronunciation of the person you're speaking with?"
(Kristin Denham and Anne Lobeck, "Linguistics for Everyone: An Introduction", 2nd ed. Wadsworth, 2013)

Mispronunciations in Language Acquisition

"One very productive approach to the language of under-fives especially is to study apparent 'mispronunciations.' These can appear to be idiosyncratic mistakes but, as with inflectional errors, many children display similar patterns, and they are considered to be part of normative development unless they persist for too long."
(Alison Wray and Aileen Bloomer, "Projects in Linguistics and Language Studies", 3rd ed. Routledge, 2013)

Mispronunciations in English Language Learning (ELL)

"First is the 'foreign accent factor': ELLs may mispronounce a word because some of the sounds do not exist in their first language and they have not learned to say them in English, or because the letters they are trying to pronounce map to different sounds in their native language."
(Kristin Lems, Leah D. Miller, and Tenena M. Soro, "Teaching Reading to English Language Learners: Insights from Linguistics". Guilford Press, 2010)

Speech Perception

"In speech perception, listeners focus attention on the sounds of speech and notice phonetic details about pronunciation that are often not noticed at all in normal speech communication. For example, listeners will often not hear, or not seem to hear, a speech error or deliberate mispronunciation in ordinary conversation, but will notice those same errors when instructed to listen for mispronunciations (see Cole, 1973). . . .
"[S]peech perception [is] a phonetic mode of listening in which we focus on the sounds of speech rather than the words."
(Keith Johnson, "Acoustic and Auditory Phonetics", 3rd ed. Wiley-Blackwell, 2012)

A Word That Can't Be Mispronounced

"Banal is a word of many pronunciations, each of which has its outspoken and often intractable proponents. Though it may pain some to hear it, let the record show that BAY-nul is the variant preferred by most authorities (including me). . . .
"Opdycke (1939) says banal 'may be pronounced [BAY-nul] or [buh-NAL) (riming with a pal), or [buh-NAHL] (riming with a doll), or [BAN-ul] (riming with flannel). It is, therefore, one of the few words in English that would appear to be impossible of mispronunciation.' . . .
"Although BAY-nul is probably the dominant pronunciation in American speech, buh-NAL is a close runner-up and may eventually lead the pack. Four of the six major current American dictionaries now list buh-NAL first."
(Charles Harrington Elster, "The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations: The Complete Opinionated Guide for the Careful Speaker". Houghton Mifflin, 2005)

Deliberate Mispronunciations

"As well as making history, [Winston] Churchill also wrote it. His deep historical sense was evident in his many books and in his brilliant speeches in which he used his speech impediment to great effect. One example was his deliberate mispronunciation of the word 'Nazi,' with a long 'a' and a soft 'z,' in order to show his contempt for the movement to which it referred."
(Michael Lynch, "Access to History: Britain" 1900-51. Hodder, 2008)
"Singapore culture may be considered 'pro-West' in many ways. This 'pro-West' attitude is implied in the Singlish word cheena, which is a deliberate mispronunciation of China. It is an adjective used to describe anything that is considered Chinese and old-fashioned (e.g. 'so/very cheena'). The word can be used to describe the way a person looks or does things."
(Jock O. Wong, "The Culture of Singapore English". Cambridge University Press, 2014)

Mock Spanish and the Mispronunciation of Spanish Loan Words

"[T]he sociolinguist Fernando Peñalosa (1981), working in southern California, identified the racist functions of hyper anglicization and bold mispronunciation of Spanish loan words as long ago as the 1970s. Spanish speakers object to the use of offensive words like caca and cojones in public English, and many also object to the ungrammaticality of expressions like 'No problemo,' and misspellings like 'Grassy-Ass' as showing disrespect for the language...
"Bold mispronunciation . . . yields bilingual puns like 'Fleas Navidad,' which shows up every year on humorous Christmas cards with pictures of dogs, and that hardy perennial 'Moo-cho' with a picture of a cow. The opposite treatment is 'Much Grass' from 'Muchas gracias.'"
(Jane H. Hill, "The Everyday Language of White Racism". Wiley-Blackwell, 2008)

The Lighter Side of Mispronunciation

Ann Perkins: Seniors can get pretty ornery.
Andy Dwyer: I think that's pronounced "horny."
(Rashida Jones and Chris Pratt in "Sex Education." "Parks and Recreation", October 2012)

Donald Maclean: Hullo.
Melinda: Hi. You're English.
Donald Maclean: Does it show?
Melinda: You say hello with the letter u where the letter e oughta be.
Donald Maclean: Well, you're American.
Melinda: You noticed.
Donald Maclean: You say hello with the letter i where the e and the l and the l and the o ought to be. . . . I hate America.
Melinda: Are you gonna tell me why?
Donald Maclean: For the way you treat workers, the way you treat Black people, the way you appropriate, mispronounce and generally mutilate perfectly good English words. Cigarette?
(Rupert Penry-Jones and Anna-Louise Plowman in "Cambridge Spies", 2003)

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "How to Know When You Mispronounce a Word." ThoughtCo, Jan. 5, 2021, Nordquist, Richard. (2021, January 5). How to Know When You Mispronounce a Word. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "How to Know When You Mispronounce a Word." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 30, 2023).