Sound and fury: how pronunciation provokes passionate reactions

Auditory beauty lies in the ear of the listener but to focus on sounds we don’t like is to miss out on the riches, power and beauty of the English sound system

When I used to present programmes on English usage on Radio 4, people would write in and complain about the pronunciations they didn’t like. In their hundreds. (Nobody ever wrote in to praise the pronunciations they did like.) It was the extreme nature of the language that always struck me. Listeners didn’t just say they “disliked” something. They used the most emotive words they could think of. They were “horrified”, “appalled”, “dumbfounded”, “aghast”, “outraged”, when they heard something they didn’t like.

Why do people get especially passionate about pronunciation, using language that we might think more appropriate as a reaction to a terrorist attack than to an intruded “r” (as in “law(r) and order”)? One reason is that ...

Lousy at punctuation? Fear not – so was Wordsworth

Though one of the greatest poets who ever lived struggled with commas, many of us are infuriated by rogue apostrophes and other printed solecisms. How did this come to be?

Imagine this. You are a celebrated poet unsure of your punctuation, so you decide to write to the greatest scientist you know to ask him to correct the punctuation of a poetry book you’re preparing for press. You’ve never met him. Moreover, you ask him to send on the corrected manuscript to the printer, without bothering to refer back to you. And he does it.

An unlikely scenario? Not so. This was William Wordsworth, preparing the second edition of the Lyrical Ballads. On 28 July 1800, at the suggestion of Coleridge, he wrote to the chemist Humphry Davy:

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