The mispronunciation of certain words may lead to an unfair and possibly derogatory judgment of the speaker's level of education and authenticity. These errors aren’t related to regional or social variations (dialects), such as the difference in pronunciation of schedule between North Americans and the British (skedule and shedule respectively); they are a direct misuse or misunderstanding of the language. The following five words are the biggest culprits - there are others, but these are the most common - and correcting them in everyday speech will help limit any potential damage to the credibility of the speaker, since those listening often know the correct form of the word.
- Heighth (Height) – This mistake arises from other similar words of the measurement family ending with th e.g. length (from long), width (from wide), depth (from deep), and the lesser used breadth (from broad). It certainly seems like it should be heighth and is a normal extension of those other words, but similar to weight, the ending is t, not th, and the correct pronunciation and spelling is height, sounding like light.
- Expresso (Espresso) – The pronunciation with an x can be heard quite frequently, even while visiting the numerous coffee shops where it is brewed and sold. It is another close call based on form (similar to heighth), since the origins are related to the word express, meaning “to press or squeeze out”, and some dictionaries permit it as a variant. However, the correct pronunciation of espressousing an s comes from Italy, where the x in Latin root words is often replaced by an s in the derivative. When in Rome, and all that ...
- Supposably (Supposedly) – Shockingly, supposably is a legitimate word (at least in American English). It’s probably not the word you’re looking for most of the time, but nonetheless it is an adverb meaning “able to be supposed” or “conceivably”. Even the spell checker can’t believe it. An example of usage would be: “we may supposably be permitted to go home tomorrow”, but its use is not advised - opt for conceivably instead. The word generally required is supposedly, meaning “accepted or believed as true”, but often accompanied with just a little hint of sarcasm: “my brother is supposedly coming to visit me tomorrow, but I’ll believe it when I see it.”
- Irregardless (Regardless) – A flawed construction given life by the word irrespective. The prefix ir means “not” and the suffix less means “without”, creating a double negative around the root word regard. Therefore, in essence (but not in reality, since it isn’t a word despite what the spell checker might say), irregardless means “in regard to”, the opposite of what it is supposed to mean. It does, however, appear in some dictionaries, but this is not an excuse to use it in speech as it is listed as non-standard (i.e. commonly used, but utterly incorrect). The recommended and correct form of the word is regardless, meaning “without regard”.
- Pacific (Specific) – Pacific is correct when talking about the ocean, but incorrect when meaning either “precise” (“she had a specific set of objectives”), or “details”, (“the police officer recorded the specifics of the crime scene”). The correct word is specific; the reason for the difficulty in pronunciation is the proximity of the second s sound to the opening sp sound. If you are prone to this little linguistic trap (ask a close friend), practice slowly by saying together sp as in sport, si as in sing, and fick as in fickle, and hopefully you'll soon be out of deep water.
Of course, there are many other English words and phrases that are treated with a little less respect than they may, or may not, deserve – some deliberately mispronounced (aks instead of ask), and some just difficult to grasp (like Otorhinolaryngologist - give me a break). Still others present a very personal challenge; one notable case is the actor Benedict Cumberbatch’s public battle with the word penguins in the documentary Strange Islands, during which he repeatedly refers to the flightless birds as pengwings, or at one point penglings, probably as a result of some terrible childhood penguin trauma. Certain phrases can also join in the fun, with the classic example being to all intensive purposes instead of to all intents and purposes. But it’s the five words above that standout markedly in common speech, and learning to pronounce them correctly will certainly help to at least maintain your conversational standing among your peers.