Do you take pains saying ‘painstaking’?

I don’t know when I first realised that painstaking – which means very careful, diligent and meticulous – is about taking pains. It’s obvious when you see it, but I didn’t make the connection when I first saw the word, and duly used and encountered it for a while before the etymology occurred to me or I read it somewhere.

Consider for a moment how you say the word, specifically the s in the middle. Do you voice it like a z, as in pains-taking, or is it an unvoiced, ‘soft’ s, as in pain-staking? Maybe you say it both ways? Or it could be borderline – it often seems so. I know the pronunciation of a sound can depend a lot on its neighbours, but I don’t have the phonetic savvy to establish precisely what’s going on here.

In any case it seems I’m not the only one to whom the word’s structure wasn’t initially glaringly obvious. When I asked on Twitter how people spoke it, most said they didn’t voice the s, and some were surprised (to put it mildly) to analyse it anew as taking pains. I’ve just put the full Twitter discussion up on Storify, if you’d like to take a look.

tibetan buddhist sand mandala

Tibetan Buddhist monks taking pains over a sand mandala.*

Curiously, there may be a UK/US difference here. British dictionaries tend to include the voiced-s pronunciation (or ‘z-form’) in their entries for painstaking, but some omit the unvoiced-s variant despite its popularity. Macmillan and Collins offer only the z-form, as does Oxford Dictionaries’ UK page – its US page has both.

Cambridge’s UK audio sample is clearly pains-taking, IPA /ˈpeɪnzˌteɪ.kɪŋ/, but its US audio is closer to pain-staking. Merriam-Webster has \ˈpān-ˌstā-kiŋ\ but its audio is (I think) ambiguous. The American Heritage Dictionary 4th ed. has the z-form only, but the 5th has both and notes that despite its etymology the word “often sounds as if it were made from pain and staking”.

So here’s a quick poll, to increase the sample size of this informal survey. Comments on how you say it and what your dialect is would also be welcome, as would phonetic analysis from anyone who has taken pains to learn those ropes.

* Photographer unknown. Please tell me if you can identify the source.

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24 Responses to Do you take pains saying ‘painstaking’?

  1. I find it difficult to say the word painstaking without voicing the “s” at the middle.

    • Virginia Simmon says:

      I agree, Jay. And I confess to being curious about what meaning or root or image other than “taking pains” might have occurred to you, Stan.

  2. John Cowan says:

    I don’t voice it, but I can tell it’s a coda consonant because the /t/ in the next syllable is aspirated, which means it’s not preceded by /s/.

  3. “take pains”, in my mind, is to take some effort to do something. The words, I believe, is sounds better to say to “take great pains” although they may differ slightly in meaning.

    Painstaking, on the other, is what I practice when paint a landscape I have seen when I try to include details based on what I remember.

  4. I say pain-staking… but I am fully aware of “taking pains” in saying that. I think this is simply a case of what I would call a “lazy tongue”, which is, in my opinion, responsible for so many changes in language.
    Many changes in language occur because word combinations are difficult to enunciate in the original sense. We all have lazy tongues… our tongues take the path of least resistance when we speak, because we speak quickly in order to convey as much information as possible in the shortest time possible.
    Language is communication, and communication is also always a question of the physical limits of the tongue and simple convenience.
    I became very much aware of this when I moved to Germany and learned to speak German. After twenty years I can communicate wonderfully on all levels.Though I still don’t speak perfect German, I am perfectly fluent. But I noticed, in trying to learn to learn proper German, how hardly anyone speaks their own language “properly”.
    Now I am trying to learn to speak Persian with my girlfriend, with the aid of books and what-not… lazy tongues, wherever I look. I say so-and-so, like in the book, and she says “No one says it like that. Ratataratrata. That’s the way everyone says it.”
    Fascinating.

  5. Ray Ward says:

    Like most Americans, I say “pain staking,” but this post (and painstaking research confirming it) tells me that maybe I should say “pains taking.”

  6. My family (US) and I usually slow down whenever we say this word, and really enunciate the ‘s’, so most like pain-staking (however, we usually say ‘painstakingly’). I don’t know why, I think we use it as an emphasis word, and to show how hard or dreary something is. This was cool to learn about, thanks!

  7. Gerry says:

    On reflection, I think I say always say painztaking. The other version seems difficult to get my tongue around.

    Another interesting variation on the s/z thing is the pronunciation of “because”. I think standard pronunciation is becauz, but my brother says becauss (i.e., unvoiced s). I’d never noticed him saying this, but it seems that one day a work colleague of non-English speaking background (Iranian from memory) said, “Hey Pat, why do you say becauss?”. Ever since then I have noticed the pattern whenever he says the word, and have heard it very occasionally from other people. He tells me that he might have started saying it as a child because it sort of goes with “of course”.

  8. KokkieH says:

    I’ve always said it as pain-staking. Never noticed the similarity to taking pains either. But then English is my second language. I’m from South Africa where we supposedly use the queen’s English.

  9. flissw says:

    This reminds me of my own misreading of ‘misled’ when I was a child. I read it as (rhyming with ‘miser’) a past tense of a verb ‘misle’ and meaning ‘to deliberately and maliciously mislead’ (apologies for the split infinitive) – I’m not sure when I discovered this was an invention but I also discovered that my mother and others had done a similar thing.

  10. Gerry says:

    Yes, I’ve heard the word read out loud as mizzled.

  11. Halceon says:

    Not a proper phoneticist here, but I did take 2 courses on the subject, add salt accordingly. In addition, I didn’t learn that in English, so the terms I use might not be the most correct ones.

    Now then.
    What seems to be happening is assimilation of voicing. This process is usually regressive, i.e., going opposite the direction of speech. So it’s very likely that this is the same process here, ‘zt’ -> ‘st’. (The fact that it’s pronounced voiced in ‘pains’ is, likely, itself a case of progressive assimilation and a topic for another day.)
    Additionally you can also look at the fact that the transition from a voiced ‘n’ to an unvoiced ‘s’ is easier than from a voiced ‘z’ to an unvoiced ‘t’, due to the fact that ‘s/z’ is a longer sound and it’s voicing is determined throughout the pronunciation, while ‘t/d’ is short and the voicing is determined in the short moment before release.

    These are counteracted by perceiving the word as a (correct) compound and adding a mental or audible pause between ‘s’ and ‘t’.

    I think if you learn the word from reading, then you’re very likely to go with the ‘s’ and unpack the compound as pain-staking afterwards.

  12. I’m a US English speaker and say painz-taking and have always interpreted it as “taking pains.” I’ve never actually noticed anyone saying pain-staking although a lot of Americans apparently do — I’ll have to start listening more closely now.

  13. I say pains-taking, but I notice it comes out sounding almost like two words instead of one.

  14. thnidu says:

    I say pains-taking, and I can’t remember a time when I didn’t, though that may be because it would have been a long time ago (I’m 65).

    You asked about dialect but the poll had no place for it. I grew up in NYC, both parents ditto and college-educated, but I don’t have any New York accent that non-specialists notice. And I’m a linguist and language geek with a knack for practical phonetics, so it’s entirely possible that at some point I recognized the word’s structure and consciously modified my pronunciation until it became habitual.

  15. Stan says:

    Thank you all for the interesting comments, reports, and phonetic analysis. At the time of writing the two pronunciations are polling quite closely, both at 40-something percent as n approaches 100. I’d like to have incorporated location into the poll, but I think the only way of doing this straightforwardly was to make it US/UK, and this meant excluding other places, which I didn’t want to do.

    Virginia, the word’s root simply didn’t occur to me at first. I saw it and occasionally used it without examining it.

    Mr. Hellstrøm: Laziness (or efficiency, if we’re being generous) is behind many changes in language use. Recently someone asked me about authoritive as a variant of authoritative. You can see the motivation for this abridgement, and it’s paralleled in other pairs (e.g., preventive, preventative), but authoritive is definitely non-standard – for now.

    Ray: I didn’t mean to suggest that either was more correct than the other; I think both are perfectly legitimate, even if the etymology makes “pains-taking” seem more logical. Thanks for your follow-up on this at the (new) legal writer, by the way.

    flissw, Gerry: Misled has mizzled so many people that the word was adapted to refer to all words of this type. Misled, deicer, biopic, titleist and company are known collectively and informally as misles.

  16. Charles Sullivan says:

    US English speaker here. I say pain-staking. Curiously, I always assumed the etymology referred to putting one’s pain at stake (risking pain) in some endeavour.

  17. old gobbo says:

    I think Ms/r Halceon has hit the nail pretty squarely on the head, here. I think (one does not always hear oneself correctly), for my own part, that I tend, as an RP user, to say pains-taking with an ‘s’ rather than a ‘z’ (though perhaps a slightly harsher ‘z’ than in other contexts) – and this is probably indeed due to the surrounding ‘n’ and ‘t’ sounds. A solitary terminal ‘s’, in ‘streams’, say, or ‘springs’ would definitely tend to the /z/ noise. However I feel that US speech patterns would tend to influence one to a /z/ sound. Which makes the findings of the dictionaries you cite very puzzling.

  18. davidly says:

    Of urban Midwest American origins, I’ve always said pain-staking and thought that’s what it was – that is, that staking pain meant giving effort. I suspect the sampling here tends toward the more lingually astute, and that a broader survey would indicate no shortage of folks who thought as I did.

    By the way, until I’d begun to learn a second language, I’d’ve assumed that voiced and unvoiced were the reverse of their actual meanings.

  19. Stan says:

    Charles, old gobbo, davidly, thanks for your comments. I’d say personal folk etymologies of pain-staking are common enough and would range from vague to more concretely constructed. The familiarity of stake in various senses, some figurative, would allow more room for this. I take David’s point about the sampling bias here, but for what it’s worth the unvoiced version now has a significant lead in the poll, at 57% to pains-taking‘s 35%.

  20. Gerry says:

    Forgot to add that I’m an Aussie painztaker.

  21. mollymooly says:

    I devoice the s, but it’s still pains-taking in my mental lexicon. English compounds of the form noun + verb-ing mostly use a singular noun, which may encourage the pain-staking reanalysis. The sense of “pains” here is a plurale tantum, but even those often singularise in compounds.

    • Stan says:

      Molly: I wonder what proportion of plurale tantum singularise in compounds. I can think of a few examples (e.g., trouser suit), but it seems the plural form is much more usually retained.

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