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Sometimes it's not what you say, it's how you say it

May 15, 2016

Pronunciation of the word divisive can be divisive.

Michigan Radio listener Connie of Grand Rapids wrote “I had always thought the middle syllable in this word was a long i, as in divided but I am hearing NPR hosts saying it with a short i, as in division.

Curzan and Miller admit they use both pronunciations.

“What we’re seeing here is a shift from what seems to be the standard pronunciation in a relatively short time frame – the last 15 years or so," Curzan says.

She checked with the American Heritage Dictionary usage panel, of which she’s a member, to see how they’re voting on this.

“And what I found was the last time they asked us about this word was in 2013, when 88% of the panel preferred divisive with a long i. So clearly that appears to be the preferred pronunciation. But 65% said that divisive with the short i is acceptable, which strikingly is up from 2001," Curzan says.

"When they asked the panel in 2001, only 16% said that divisive with the short i was acceptable."

So is there a snooty factor involved here?

"What’s interesting to me is that I think for at least some speakers, divisive (short i) may seem like the high pronunciation, as opposed to divisive (long i), which is striking because that’s the new one. And for a new one to come in and become the high form is an interesting division, so to speak," Curzan says.

Here’s another word that has a couple of pronunciations: futile.

"I looked in several standard dictionaries, and some give two pronunciations, but often the first one is futile (short i), as in 'resistance is futile,'" she says.

Curzan says she was corrected when she used the word pyramidal recently.

Is it “pyra-MIDDLE?”

Nope. 

“It’s py-RAM-iddle.”

Who knew?