Pronunciation for Presentation
PRONUNCIATION: EFFECTIVE ENGLISH FOR PRESENTATIONS
NOTES FOR STUDENTS (AND EVERYONE ELSE)
Note: in this section, pronunciations (or, rather, mispronunciations) are given in an approximate phonetic form and in square brackets, e.g. [sep-rit] for "separate". Thus anything within square brackets is intended to be a warning and not a recommendation! The glottal stop [explained below] is indicated by /// as in [Bri///ish] for "British" and [gu///ed] for "gutted".
This section is not a plea for people to "talk posh". There is a difference between pronunciation and accent. I come from the London suburb of Romford, legendary home of unfashionable "Essex Man". My accent remains basically Romford, and Romford is definitely not posh. Some of the glitches listed below formed part of the spoken English of my early years. I am not ashamed of them, but I have learned that they are non-standard and I avoid them when I need to communicate with people from beyond Romford.
This section is designed to identify words that are frequently mispronounced, especially in modern Britain, in order to help students communicate more effectively. The aim is to encourage people to speak English in a manner that is accurate, not affected. Nobody is being urged to revert to babyhood and learn to speak English all over again.
As with problems in spelling, most mispronunciations can be grouped under a small number of headings. They are easy to be identified and eliminated from the way you speak.
WHY DOES PRONUNCIATION MATTER?
Accurate pronunciation matters because English is an international language which is spoken in many different forms in different countries around the world. Even within its "home" islands of Britain and Ireland, many different versions are in use. (The BBC in London once caused offence in Scotland by adding subtitles to a televised interview from Glasgow.)
In our own homes and daily lives, we all have the right to use words in any way that makes us feel comfortable and avoids cutting us off from our families and friends. But in seeking to communicate ─ whether by making announcements, presenting seminar papers, taking part in meetings and discussions ─ there is a need for clarity in speech.
There is nothing "exclusive" about clear enunciation of words. It is not "showing off", nor is it being "terribly clever" or acting "posh". Indeed, some pronunciation horrors arise precisely because people try to talk "posh". An example if the word "questionable", which contains five neat and separate syllables. Yet somehow people who wish to signal that they are very important pronounce the word as [quesh-nubble]. This version is very fashionable ─ or perhaps I should say [fash-nubble].
In fact, taking trouble with pronunciation is an "inclusive" strategy ─ one that makes sure people from other backgrounds can understand what you are saying. From time to time I need to telephone help-lines to sort out difficulties with my Internet connection. I find myself talking to wonderfully supportive people in Mumbai who usually solve the problems. Invariably, they speak English with complete accuracy and admirable clarity. But these call-centre workers have all learned their English at schools and colleges, and they take care to pronounce and articulate carefully so that they can communicate with other people in India who have also learned their English in the classroom. In a country with more than twenty indigenous official languages, Indians simply cannot assume that their fellow citizens will understand what they are talking about if they mumble and gobble their words when they speak English. In Britain and Ireland, we take for granted that we have a huge advantage because we live in English-speaking countries. But it is India that has cornered the call centre market, because the people of India take more care in speaking our language than we do ourselves.
British and American statistics suggest that about eight percent of the population has some form of hearing difficulty. This means that, on average, in any seminar group of twelve students, one may suffer from impaired hearing. Thanks to the widespread use of personal stereo systems, it is likely that increasing numbers of young people have partially damaged hearing. Of course, you can take the aggressive line that their problems are not your concern [u deff or sumfing?]. But it seems more generous and also more effective to make the effort to speak clearly.
As with bad spelling, poor pronunciation may harm your job prospects. In most of the areas in which graduates seek employment ─ business, education, government, industry ─ interview panels are likely to give preference to somebody who speaks clearly and can communicate effectively, because these qualities form part of the requirements for the job.
IT'S EASIER THAN YOU MAY THINK...
There is no suggestion that you should have to walk around, like Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, reciting: "In Hertford, Hereford and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly happen."
Most of the mispronunciations current in modern Britain can be grouped under a small number of headings. Once you are aware of these, you can eliminate them from your own speech whenever you are making some form of public presentation.
PRONOUNCE EACH WORD SEPARATELY
A schoolteacher tells me of a youngster who wrote that a relative had suffered a "harter tack". It may seem amusing (the spelling, not the heart attack), but the mistake is understandable, since in ordinary speech we often break up words and run the bits together. Ask me if I should like some fruit, and I am sure I would ask for [a napple]. If you are making a class presentation (or reading the television news), make the effort to say: "Parnell # died # of # a # heart # attack # in # 1891", with the # symbol representing the spaces between the words.
This is perhaps the largest group, and certainly the fastest-growing. Each day the BBC [beeb-see] provides new examples. In multi-syllable words, one of the sounds vanishes. Sometimes it is a middle syllable that disappears, as in
temperature [temp-richure ─ also see below under t/ch].
Sometimes two syllables vanish, as in
Increasingly, the first syllable is the one that collapses [clapses] as in
Curiously, the practice is even infecting words in which the middle syllable should be emphasised at least equally with the others, as in
The practice has also spread to include the gobbling of the first part of two-syllable words, as in:
ELISION OF SOUNDS BETWEEN WORDS
Elision often happens in groups of words where two successive syllables have a similar sound:
general election [gen-rul-lec-shun]
England and Wales [eng-lun-wales]
A similar pronunciation and spelling hiccup sometimes occurs in the two-word phrase "prime minister". Teaching at an elite and selective British university, I was surprised to encounter students who wrote essays in which they described the head of government as the "pryminister". At the very least, this suggested that they did not read newspapers. The root problem was that they did not sound the two separate Ms when they said "prime minister" but elided them as [pryminister].
I have heard [gen-rul-lec-shun] uttered on British television by a commentator who attended one of England's most select and expensive private schools. The problem is widespread!
Taking care to enunciate each syllable of a word is a major step towards clarity in pronunciation ─ especially when you are presenting a seminar paper, taking part in a meeting or attending an interview.
THE GLOTTAL STOP
The glottal stop is the omission of the T-sound in the middle of words, and its replacement by an indeterminate grunt, rendered here as [///]. It is caused by a muscular contraction of the vocal cords which briefly blocks the flow of air in the throat, producing a strange gulping noise.
By curious coincidence, the term itself is often mispronounced as "the [glo///al] stop". Examples include
gutted Footballers who have a bad game are often admit they are [gu///ed].
It is important to say "Britain" and it takes little effort to get it right!
CH INSTEAD OF T
T becomes CH, especially, but not always, before a U sound. Examples include
Occasionally this happens twice in the same word:
Already noted above is
temperature [temp-richure] ─ why not "tem-per-a-ture", as it is written?
secretary is often mispronounced as [seck-re-chree],
but far worse abominations happen to this innocent word (see below).
J FOR D
This is similar to the T/CH glitch.
D becomes J, again especially before a U sound. Examples include
duke [jook], as in "the Jook of Edinburgh"
due [jew], as in "the bus was late [jew] to bad weather."
R FOR W in the middle of a word
The R sound creeps in to the middle of words which should have a W sound. It is a glitch that seems to infect words that already have an R or L sound in them, and then only if there is an [aw] vowel sound. Examples include
MISSING N BEFORE M
This glitch affects the pronunciation of a small number of words, and the error is often reflected in spelling mistakes as well. Two examples stand out in particular:
The N BEFORE M problem may also explain the frequent confusion between
interment = the burial of a human body with funeral rites
internment = imprisonment without trial, usually in time of war or national emergency
MISCELLANEOUS HORROR WORDS
A handful of frequently mispronounced words grate on the ear. It is not hard to get them right. Notable examples are:
This word we have already encountered in the T/CH section garbled as [seck-re-chree].
But it is also mangled and massacred as [seck-er-tree] or [seck-er-chree], the second syllable ("re") becoming inverted to be pronounced [er]. There is no reason why the word should not be pronounced as it is spelt: sec-re-ta-ry.
There is a G in this word, because it is related to words such as "cognition" and "cognitive". The pronunciation [reck-er-nise] is ugly and lazy. Sound the G! Re-cog-nise.
Given the importance of nuclear power and nuclear weapons in the modern world, there would seem to be some reason to get this word right.
Yet it is widely mispronounced as if it contained not one but two syllables with a U sound [new-kew-luh].
Some local variations of spoken English have difficulty in handling an L sound immediately after a hard-C, and hence insert an imaginary vowel.
One suggestion is to think of "nuclear" as if it were two distinct words.
It is unlikely that anybody would find it difficult to say:
"We need a new, clear policy on nu-clear energy."
This seemingly simple ordinal number is not the easiest word for a native English-speaker to pronounce because it merges three sounds into one (K + S + TH). Many fail the challenge, omit the S sound and render the word as [sick-th].
It has never struck me as the worst mispronunciation in the English language, but it is important to be aware that there are people who throw their slippers at the television set when they hear it uttered in the media.
This word is often mispronounced as [manner-facturing] or, worse still, [manner-fack-chring]. Anyone familiar with English Premiership football will know that Manchester United are familiarly known as "Man-U". Since Manchester is one of the world's great manufacturing cities, this seems a good way of remembering the correct pronunciation of man-u-fac-tur-ing.
Once again, let me be clear about the aim of this exercise. I am not asking anybody to abandon their social class, nor cut themselves off from their cultural roots. I do not condemn the integrity of any form of English that may be used within communities, families, regions or suburbs. I do not ask people to go around speaking English sounding as if they have a potato in their mouths.
I am anxious that students, especially in Britain (not [Bri///ain]) and Ireland, should be aware that we can all speak two forms of English, the one we feel comfortable in using every day with the people around us, and a compromise, consensual version that enables us to communicate with others, including those who are hard of hearing or who speak different forms of English, in more formal settings.
It is easy enough to improve your pronunciation, whether you are presenting a seminar paper or attending a job interview. The main points are straightforward:
** articulate each word separately, e.g. "heart # attack" not [harter tack]
** make the effort to pronounce every syllable in a word, e.g. sep-ar-ate, not [sep-rit]
** avoid the glottal stop:
"It was important that the British team did well and I am gutted because they lost", not
"it was impor///ant that the Bri///ish team did well and I am gu///ed because they lost".
** beware of T becoming CH: Tuesday not [chews-dee], overture not [over-chure].
** beware of D becoming J: duke not [jook], during not [jewring].
** eradicate the R sound from W words: drawing not [dror-ring].
** don't forget to pronounce the first N in "government" and the second N in "environment".
** remember that
"secretary" is related to "secret". The first half of the word does not rhyme with "pecker"
we need a new, clear policy on nuclear power
there is a G in "recognise"
there is an S in "sixth"
Man-U play in the manufacturing city of Manchester.
Those of us who have English as our mother-tongue are fortunate to have been born into the world's principal language community. But we should not make the mistake of assuming that because we grow up speaking English, we are necessarily good at communicating in the global common language. It is worth making the effort to ensure that what we say is comprehensible to people who have grown up speaking other forms of English, or have gone to the trouble to learn it as their second language.