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A Logophile's Blog
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Are You a Victim of Erroneous Correction?

Recently I received a breathless emissive from a reader of Verbal Advantage named Norma. She was in pronunciation distress, and she needed expert assistance. Here is what she wrote:

"Thank you for taking a moment to read my email. I am in desperate need to know if I have a phonics problem. . . . For example, I pronounce the word ambience and my boyfriend, who is an RN, laughs at me and tells me I pronounced ambience wrong. But that is only one of many words he corrects when I say them. What I need to know is do you have a program that can actually hear me speak and correct me at that moment."

This was my response:

I'm not a speech therapist, so I can't opine on whether you may have a phonics problem. And I don't know of any device that can correct pronunciation in the way you describe — such a contrivance, I think, would doubtless be annoying after a while. What I'm wondering is whether you have a boyfriend problem, not a phonics problem. How do you know he's right every time he corrects you? Does he provide any reliable evidence of his correctness? If he's going to ridicule you for the way you speak, you have every right to fight back and demand proof, for you may be the unsuspecting victim of an all-too-common phenomenon I call "erroneous correction."

I suggest that you arm yourself with a good dictionary or two — preferably a Random House dictionary published before 2003, or a Webster's New World Dictionary (NOT a Merriam-Webster dictionary) — and familiarize yourself with the pronunciation symbols. And if you really want to get serious and defend yourself, pick up a copy of my Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations (second edition, 2006). I cover hundreds and hundreds of troublesome words in there, including ambience — which, since you spelled it properly (it's not ambiance) I'm guessing you may also pronounce it properly: AM-bee-ints. The pseudo-French variant AHM-bee-ahnts (or ahm-bee-AHNTS) is a recent, half-educated bit of pretentiousness. If that's the way your boyfriend says it, he's wrong.

In the entry for gondola in my Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations I discuss the phenomenon of erroneous correction. Here is the pertinent portion of the entry:

In the 1986 movie Heartburn, based on Nora Ephron's book, a woman says, "Arthur's idea of romance is Venice, gondolas," stressing the first syllable. "Gondolas," her husband interrupts, stressing the second syllable in an irritated tone of voice that implies he has corrected her often. "Yes, of course," she says, and changes the subject.

That is precisely the sort of unfortunate situation I had in mind when I decided to write this book, and I hope you will use what is written here as ammunition in your defense should you become the victim of what I like to call "erroneous correction." Correcting someone else's pronunciation (or grammar or diction or anything else) can be one of the most obnoxious things a person can do, but it doesn't have to be. When I find myself impelled to do it, I try to follow these three rules:

1. Don't ever interrupt the speaker.
2. Whenever possible, make your comments in private.
3. Make damn sure you're right!

In this case the woman was right to put the accent on the gon- in gondola, and her partner, who apparently had never checked the pronunciation in a dictionary, broke all three rules and made an ass of himself.
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