Do you take pains saying ‘painstaking’?

June 2, 2014

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.


Top 100 language lovers 2014

May 25, 2014

Language portal bab.la is having its annual “Language Lovers” poll. I’ve placed well in recent years but I don’t read much into the results; nor should you. Twitter’s “Follow Friday” is used as a scoring metric, for example, despite being as spammy and arbitrary as it is edifying.

Still, it’s a bit of fun and a fine way to discover new language-related resources. You can vote for Sentence first – or a blog of your choice – in the Language Professionals poll, and if you’re feeling generous you can vote for @StanCarey in the Language Twitter Accounts poll.

Macmillan Dictionary Blog, to which I’m a contributor, appears in the Language Learning Blogs list. There’s good browsing material on all these pages. For more information about the competition, go here. Voting ends on 9 June.


Bab.la top language lovers

May 23, 2013

Language portal bab.la is holding its annual competition of top language lovers, and Sentence first is honoured to appear in the Language Professionals category.

Click the image below to see the 100 shortlisted (if that’s not an oxymoron) and vote for Sentence first or another blog of your choice:

Vote the Top 100 Language Professional Blogs 2013

My Twitter page (@StanCarey) was also selected, so if you’re feeling generous you can vote for me here:

Vote the Top 100 Language Twitterer 2013

Though I placed respectably last year (see the badges in the sidebar), my expectations in these contests are modest; tireless self-promotion is not my strong point. But they’re a good way to find new language writers, and they’re also an opportunity to welcome new visitors.

Finally, if you’re in a voting or browsing kind of mood, there are also polls for Facebook pages and language-learning blogs. The latter includes Macmillan Dictionary Blog, to which I contribute regular posts.


How do you pronounce GIF? Does it matter?

December 12, 2012

When Oxford Dictionaries named the acronym GIF (graphics interchange format) as their US word of the year (in its verb use), debates resurfaced over its correct pronunciation. The short answer is that both /gɪf/ and /dʒɪf/ are fine – you can say GIF with the hard g of gift or the soft g of gin. Or you can say the letters: “gee eye eff”.

Some people insist on soft-g GIF, as in “jif”. They say it’s “up to the creators”, and “jif” is what the format’s inventors indicated. But this presumes a non-existent authority: the creators don’t get to lay down a planet-wide law, nor does anyone on their behalf. Pronunciation develops through general agreement – it’s up to everyone who uses the term – and most people seem to prefer hard-g GIF.

Philosoraptor meme - Is it 'gif' or 'gif'Gi- is inherently ambiguous, pronunciation-wise. We have hard-g gift, gills, giddy, give and giggles, soft-g gin, giblets, Gilly, giant and gist.* (There’s a Scandinavian flavour to the hard-g set.) So it’s not surprising the pronunciation of a new gi- term would split this way. But there aren’t many gif- words apart from gift, so it’s not surprising either that hard-g GIF predominates. The g‘s origin in graphics is another factor in its favour.

But there’s no question both are acceptable: Oxford Dictionaries sanction both, as do Merriam-Webster and the American Heritage Dictionary, each of them based on extensive data of what people say. There is more than one right way – there often is – and declaring otherwise doesn’t make it otherwise.

Soft-g GIF may gradually fade, or it may retain minor currency. A continued split would not be a problem. Millions of people pronounce schedule with a sh- sound; other millions go with sk-. Communication is roomy enough to contain such discrepancies, and if confusion arises people are smart and imaginative enough to figure it out. Though I can’t speak for Philosoraptor.

Out of curiosity, how do you pronounce GIF? Feel free to vote in this poll or to add your thoughts below.

*

* In phonetics, /g/ is a voiced velar stop and /dʒ/ is a voiced palato-alveolar affricate.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 6,501 other followers