Earlier this week, the subject of coworkers who routinely and regularly mispronounce a word came up in the comments, with several people mentioning that they have coworkers who keep mispronouncing the same word over and over.
So when that happens, is there a way for you to speak up and let them know? I say yes! Or at least, I say yes if you think the person would want to know. (I’d certainly want to know, and I’d bet you’d want to know.) The trick is figuring out how to do it in a way that isn’t humiliating for the person, especially if it’s a word they use all the time.
Here’s how I think you can do it fairly non-awkwardly:
1. Then next time it happens, pretend it’s the first time you’re noticing it, even if you’ve noticed it daily for the last year. This gives them some room to save face and makes it easier for you to speak up without having to explain why you’re only mentioning it now.
2. Let’s say the person keeps saying “mute” when they mean “moot.” Say something like this: “Are you saying ‘mute’ or ‘moot’? … Oh, yeah, it’s actually ‘moot’ — I used to get that wrong too!” (You don’t have to add that last part if will feel condescending or not genuine, but it’s often an easy way to signal “I don’t think you’re an idiot.”) Also, your tone matters here; it needs to be non-mocking, slightly curious and slightly matter-of-fact. Here’s an example of what your tone might sound like:
3. If the person insists that you’re wrong and they’re right, say, “No, it’s really ‘moot.’ I think it’s a really common one for people to be mistaken about though. You can look it up if you want to be sure!” Again, tone matters here. Your tone has to convey “we’re just two imperfect people sharing information here; I’m not better than you.”
(Also, now your job is done. If they keep arguing or just ignore you, you’ve tried and now you may move on without guilt.)
4. If the person seems embarrassed, help them save face by reinforcing that we all do this with certain words. For example: “It’s so weird when a word gets lodged in your brain the wrong way, isn’t it? For years, I pronounced ‘foliage’ as ‘foilage.’” (Insert whatever is true for you. The “foliage” example is from my dad, a brilliant man who worked with words for a living but apparently had some confusion around plants.)
5. Note that this only works if you have some degree of trust with the other person. They need to think you’re someone who’s on their side. If you hate each other, this won’t work and you instead need to just let it go.
Relatedly, there’s an awesome This American Life episode about stuff we become sure we know, when in fact we’re wrong … including a woman who thought the “X-ing” on deer crossing signs was pronounced “zing” and went around referring to “deer zings,” “school zings,” and “railroad zings,” until someone finally corrected her as an adult. (You can listen here or read the transcript here.)