How do you pronounce ‘eschew’?

February 19, 2016

Eschew ‘avoid, shun, refrain from’ is a formal word of Germanic origin that entered English via Old French in the 15thC. It’s not one I use often, still less speak aloud, but a brief exchange on Twitter got me wondering how people pronounce it.

Let’s do a quick poll before I say any more. It simplifies the range of vowel sounds in the unstressed first syllable, so ignore any small difference there for now. I want to focus on the consonant cluster and what we might call the shoe, chew and skew forms.

If you’ve never said eschew or are unsure how to, go with whichever one you think you would say.

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‘Emphatic’ quotation marks and consonant doubling

March 29, 2014

I have two new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, one on errant punctuation and one on a sometimes tricky aspect of spelling and morphology.

The ‘emphatic’ use of quotation marks summarises accepted uses of quotation marks, including scare quotes, before considering a common but non-standard use:

Sometimes people use quotation marks to stress a word or phrase, and this clashes with the general understanding of how the marks – and scare quotes – are properly used. In a comment to my recent article on the use of apostrophes, Kristen said she found this habit troublesome, offering the example ‘fresh’ fish, which inadvertently casts doubt on the freshness of the fish – the very opposite impression to what’s intended.

If you saw a window sign for ‘homemade’ stew or a label promising ‘delicious’ waffles, would the punctuation affect how you imagine the food? What about a cosmetic product that’s ‘good’ for your hair, or a claim that a service is ‘free’?

All the examples are real, found in the “Quotation Mark” Abuse pool on Flickr. My post presents the case for the defence, then provides some truly puzzling examples.


Patterns of consonant doubling looks at whether and when to double consonants at the end of suffixed words. Fluent speakers, who tend to have a feel for the rules,

know that nod forms nodded and red redder (doubling the d), yet brood forms brooded and dead deader (no doubling). Turning flop into an adjective by adding the suffix –y gives us floppy, doubling the p, but soap becomes soapy, with no doubling.

Vowels play an important role. Notice the short vowel in nod and flop and the relatively long ones in brood and soap. Short vowels tend to mean we double the final consonant; long vowels tend to mean we don’t. The latter are often detectable by the word’s ending with e after a consonant: compare mop (mopped) and mope (moped), tap (tapped) and tape (taped), pin (pinned) and pine (pined), and similar pairs.

The article goes on to explain the role played by syllable stress (compare offered and referred), notes exceptions and exceptions to the exceptions, and concludes with the best possible rule for dealing with this messy area.

Your thoughts, as always, are welcome here or at Macmillan; older articles on words and language are available in the archive.

The mamas & the papas in babies’ babbling

January 2, 2012

Babbling is a key stage in language acquisition. We can see where it fits into the overall progression in the following “very rough” table taken from Jean Aitchison’s The Articulate Mammal: An Introduction to Psycholinguistics:

 Language stage  Beginning age
 Crying  Birth
 Cooing  6 weeks
 Babbling  6 months
 Intonation patterns  8 months
 1-word utterances  1 year
 2-word utterances  18 months
 Word inflections  2 years
 Questions, negatives  2¼ years
 Rare or complex constructions  5 years
 Mature speech  10 years

After the cooing or gurgling phase from which it develops, babbling has a distinctly speech-like quality because it features “sounds that are chopped up rhythmically by oral articulations into syllable-like sequences”, as Mark Liberman describes it.

The sounds most associated with babbling are mama, papa, dada, nana and slight variations thereon — as for example in the well-known video of twin babies repeating dada (and dadadadada, etc.) to each other.

This is true of a great many languages from different language families and parts of the world. The remarkable correspondence can be seen in a list included in Larry Trask’s “Where do mama/papa words come from?”, about which more below:

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A mouthful of [d]

December 10, 2011

In an essay about The King’s Speech for the Fortnightly Review, I wrote that the very familiarity of speech means we easily overlook how amazing its mechanics are. This occurred to me often while reading J.D. O’Connor’s superb Phonetics, a Pelican Original from 1973.

The book has a lovely paragraph on how the [d] sound in do is articulated. Complete description of such a sound is impossible because it would require mentioning an infinite number of features, so in general we note only those features that “seem to contribute substantially to the sound”.

Some of the following terminology might be unfamiliar, in which case refer to this diagram of the human vocal tract. Here, then, is [d]:

the lips are somewhat rounded (ready for the following vowel); the teeth are close together; the soft palate is raised; the tongue-tip is firmly in contact with the alveolar ridge and the sides of the tongue are in continuous contact with the sides of the palate; the back of the tongue is raised to approximately the close vowel position (again ready for the vowel); air under pressure from the lungs is compressed within the completely stopped mouth cavity and pharynx; the tongue-tip (but not the sides or the back) then lowers suddenly allowing the compressed air to escape with a slight explosion; just before the explosion the vocal cords start to vibrate in normal voice and continue to do so into the vowel.

Professor O’Connor says that although this description may seem quite comprehensive, it is very far from complete. But it serves its basic and practical purpose. [Edit: Note the two references to readiness for the following vowel. The mouth assumes different shapes for [d] depending on what comes next. To see (or feel) this for yourself, prepare to speak do, da and dee but stop before the vowel.]

It’s also a very pleasing account of an act most of us perform more or less identically, yet uniquely, every day without a moment’s thought. Think of how much exquisite unconscious coordination goes into a full sentence, or a week’s worth of conversation. How fortunate we are to have this facility.

O’Connor (1919–1998), known familiarly as “Doc”, taught phonetics at University College London; John Wells’s obituary in the Guardian describes his lectures as “witty and effortlessly informative”, which I can believe, and his writing as “elegant and readable”, to which I can attest.

A list of O’Connor’s many publications may be found on Jack Windsor Lewis’s website.