In the manner of Shakespeare’s “To be or not to be... that is the question”, I have my own long-standing conundrum. Should one, or shouldn’t one? Should one or shouldn’t one what, I can hear the reader enquire. Should one or shouldn’t one correct another person when he’s made a mistake, either in pronunciation, or grammatically? Is it the right thing to do? What does that say about me, the corrector? Does it make me seem like a snob, a snooty know-it-all? Will I engender a distance between myself and others if I adopt this ‘correct immediately’ approach?
All of these questions, of course, are little offshoots from the original, should one or shouldn’t one? Take one example: an acquaintance, who rather loves using the odd rare synonym instead of the more common term, has been wont to pronounce the word ‘awry’ incorrectly. That is, the way he says it, it rhymes with ‘lorry’. Which, as we know, isn’t how it should be said. Instead, it should go, ‘a-rye’. Or, ‘er-rye’ to be exact.
Additionally, this word (awry) somehow happens to find itself in the top five words that this person is fond of using. Which means it gets said a lot. Now here’s the thing: all the times I’ve heard him use it, I’ve never heard anyone else step in, bravely or snobbishly take your choice, to correct him. Which has led me to conclude that: a) most of those who hear ‘awry sounding like it rhymes with lorry’ just ignore it and move on with their lives, like I do, or (b) a lot of them hear the word and keep silent because they think that’s the right way of saying it. (Which, in an odd sort of way, includes myself because I’m one of the silent majority, too.)
It’s a tricky situation, to say the least. I remember thinking it would be a whole lot easier if one of my former teacher colleagues was on hand. She wouldn’t brook any nonsense when it came to mispronunciation, no matter the person. She’d deal with it there and then and put an end to further slips of the tongue, as it were.
And then, of course, I had what’s commonly called a light bulb moment. Why not invite the said teacher colleague over and get her and the ‘awry’ pronouncing acquaintance together. So I did. And the three of us met up over coffee and croissants during which the acquaintance was keen to point out something ‘uncanny’ about the word ‘episode’.
As he put it, “it has two weapons in the one word”. Meaning ‘epee’ and ‘sword’, of course. Which is all rather clever. (Which the acquaintance tries hard to be in company.) This ‘episode’ conversation of course naturally segued into TV shows and, before one knew it, I heard him say that the show Godless while helping the old western type of movie to make a comeback was actually, in his humble opinion, “a western gone awry.” (as in lorry). “What’s aw-ree?” asked the ex-teacher, perplexed.
To cut a long story short, she ended up telling him, point blank, “it’s not pronounced aw-ree but er-rye”. My acquaintance looked at her doubtfully. Then he turned the lasers on me. Full force. “How would you pronounce it?” he asked and I wanted to slink under the nearest table. “Er, er-rye”, I stammered. The look he gave me had ‘traitor’ written all over it. “You’ve heard me use the word a lot,” he charged and I, like crossing an epee with a sword countered, rather meekly, “Have I?”
And I went home feeling somehow that the original conundrum hadn’t quite been resolved and probably never would be, with me at least. I will go on turning a deaf ear, to be nice.
Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.