Quick, say these words out loud: detritus, tinnitus, tchotchke.
If you pronounced the words above as duh-trai-tus, ti-nuh-tuhs, and chaach-kee, well done. You nailed it. If not, you’re not alone. A recent study conducted by Preply found that 44% of people have mispronounced or misused a phrase for more than a year before finding out. The same study found that eight in 10 “get annoyed when they hear a word or phrase used incorrectly.” That you? Because it’s me.
However, do I go around correcting the mispronunciations? Unless it’s my husband or kids, no. I choose life. And to be a polite, non-pedantic person, generally.
But in Preply’s survey, 66% of respondents said it was OK to correct someone (even if they weren’t asked to do so) and 87% have corrected someone’s pronunciation, with one in five having corrected a stranger. There was some discrepancy between generations with 69% of millennials believing that correcting someone is acceptable, while only 56% of baby boomers felt the same. (Which begs the question: What about Gen X? But we digress.)
Why you shouldn’t correct someone’s English
Don’t you just love when you’re doing something to the best of your ability and someone — who you may not even know — unsolicited, tells you the “right” way to do it? Even better when this is in front of other people, or during an argument. Which brings me to the first reason not to correct others’ pronunciation: It’s rude.
There are many reasons someone might be pronouncing a word differently than prescribed by the dictionary. There are regional and educational differences, dialect variations, and the fact they may be a non-native speaker. We understand the urge to correct so they won’t make the same mistake again, but before you do, consider: How will you feel if you embarrass that person, or if it damages your relationship? Are you dying to correct them to be helpful, or to demonstrate some kind of linguistic superiority? (Be honest.)
Is it ever ok to correct someone’s English?
Of course, there are exceptions. If you’re a teacher, it’s within your purview to correct student mistakes; you wouldn’t be doing your job if you didn’t. Similarly, parents are expected to correct their kids’ mispronunciations so their offspring can go out into the world without dropping F bombs when they mean to say “fork.” (Here we must add a note of nostalgia-based caution: Little ones will only say things like “blankely” for blanket and “Huncheys of Oats” instead of Honey Bunches of Oats for so long. For maximum cuteness, correct these sparingly, if ever.) Also, be mindful of over-correcting your children to the point of it eroding their confidence.
In the workplace, there are times pronunciation warrants correction; for example, when proprietary software is being mispronounced, or if your co-worker keeps saying “escape goat” in client presentations. When a malapropism reflects poorly on the group as a whole (or you’re that person’s manager), correct privately and without condescension.
Sometimes, people might be looking to learn and will actually ask for the feedback. In which case, you can certainly provide it. But unless you hear, “How do you say that again?” think twice before saying, “Actually, it’s…”
And lastly, if you haven’t corrected a member of your birth, adopted, or chosen family, are you even really family? When you live with people, there’s an implicit level of familiarity and honesty that trumps politesse. I will admit I sometimes I correct my husband simply because he’s so well-versed in science and history, I must flex my chokehold on language being my thing. But also? I can’t have him out in the world saying “Kye-osk” instead of “kee-osk.” We have a family name to protect.