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Word snobbery

In complaining about broadcasters — an easy sport, but an irresistible one — I deplored their tendency to pronounce the t in often. Jan Freeman took up the point in her excellent blog, Throw Grammar From the Train.

Two points are indisputable, and I bow to Ms. Freeman: Offen was the dominant traditional pronunciation for centuries, but sounding the t became common in the twentieth century. Both pronunciations are current among educated speakers.

My speculation, based on personal observation, is that the t was sounded by middle-class people concerned with appearing educated, and, middle-class people with status anxiety being numerous, they gradually made the previously scorned pronunciation commonplace.

Further illustration of Bernard Shaw’s point that everyone is judgmental about spoken language comes from comments on Ms. Freeman’s post:

From Larry Larson: “I say the ‘t’. And I am a grammar Nazi. Am I wrong? I don't think so. Older American dictionaries might I find the OFF-en pronunciation throws people into the same speaking category as those who say ‘libary’ and ‘seprit’. But that's just me.”

And from someone wisely choosing to remain anonymous: “OFF-ten has always been the traditional educated American pronunciation. Offen is a pronunciation for people who warsh their clothes in the crick and write with a pin.”

Perhaps we can discuss another time why grammar Nazi is not a term to display with pride. And as far as Anonymous is concerned, the commonly accepted Rules of Disparagement in American culture allow me to make remarks about people from Appalachia, but you cannot unless you also grew up there.

As the point of what has been the traditional educated pronunciation, I refer you to the first edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage: “The sounding of the t, which as the OED says is ‘not recognized by the dictionaries’, is practised by two oddly consorted classes—the academic speakers who affect a more precise enunciation than their neighbours ... & the uneasy half-literates who like to prove that they can spell. ...” 




Posted by John McIntyre at 1:51 PM | | Comments (6)


That certainly was a mean-spirited crack about people who warsh their clothes in the crick, as my mother did when she was a child. I often wonder if the people who say off-10 like to soff-10 their clothes when they launder them. I realize that people can pronounce words pretty much as they please, but I still tend to wince when I hear people rhyming Moscow with brown cow instead of with Glasgow. On the other hand, maybe those cowpokes rhyme all three.

I still have the Encarta dictionary loaded on my PC. It has this to say about the pronunciation, showing that there are a whole bunch of similar words where the T is generally dropped:

Pronunciation of often: 15th-century England saw a tendency among speakers of English to omit some consonants in an effort to pronounce some words more easily. Such was the case with the letter t in often. To this day, the preferred pronunciations of this word are /, áwf'n, óff'n/, though some speakers do pronounce the t. Other words, such as listen, soften, hasten, and glisten, in which the t is never pronounced, reflect that same 15th-century trend.

One reason to drop the "t" in soften is so the word will sound soft. It jars the ear to say "her heart soft-tenned by love."

Still, I cannot stop pronouncing the "t" in soften, though my wife has corrected me 11,000 times and John's video on how to say the word is funny. Spelling is difficult enough when words are pronounced the way the look. When appearance and sound diverge, spelling is impossible. Impossible! IMPOSSIBLE! It is a crime, a felony, that there is no "e" in ninth.

During the 50's & 60s, in the blue-collar NJ town in which I grew up, the people who said of-Ten had made a long voyage to get to this country through some ugly circumstances. (That they wound up in NJ is another conversation.) To this day, the sound of that "T" makes me think of people who are just trying to get along.

I wish only the worst for anonymous.

I love that 2 of my favorite bloggers read and comment on each other's blogs!

BTW, I grew up in Iowa, currently live in Texas, and stopped saying "warsh" and "pop" when I moved to NH (where they pronounced my name "KAH-ler")!

I have often [pronounce as you will] noted that the comments on Jan's blog seem to entirely misunderstand the spirit, not to mention the letter, of Jan's blog. Note the banner, readers of Throw Grandma From The Train. See that subhead, "notes from a recovering prescriptivist?" Jan Freeman's writing on language nearly always boils down to a plaintive (well-argued, well-supported) plea for peevologists to just stop, already, please. And yet that just seems to inspire the peevologists to trot out their favorite rants, once again. Perhaps it's that inviting blank comment space, beckoning as it does, whispering "rant here, rant here"...

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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