"preferred" pronunciations & spellings

AAllan at AOL.COM AAllan at AOL.COM
Thu Mar 15 19:58:33 UTC 2001

One of the most common myths about dictionaries is that whenever a dictionary
reports variation, the first item it reports is preferred, as in:

<< the preferred pronunciation is "nitch," with "neesh" as a second
pronunciation >>

Here is what the American Heritage (4th ed) has to say on the subject:

"All pronunciations given here are acceptable in all circumstances. When more
than one pronunciation is given, the first is assumed to be the most common,
but the difference in frequency may be insignificant."

The same myth is even more widely and deeply believed about spellings: that
the first is "preferred." Here is what AHD4 has to say about that:

"All [spelling] variants shown in this Dictionary are acceptable in any
context unless a restrictive label, such as a dialect label, indicates
otherwise. . . . the word _or_ joining an entry word and its variant form or
forms indicates that these forms occur with virtually equal frequency. . . ."

Now the thing about print (and language in general) is that it is not
simultaneous but sequential, so some form must come first. In spelling, guess
what: the dictionary will put equal forms in alphabetical order. That's why
"traveler" comes before "traveller" (with an _or_ in between). But people
reading that will assume "traveler" is preferred.

Not a big deal . . . it's just a pet peeve of mine. - Allan Metcalf

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