Gnats in the Belfry


By Mary Kendig

I’ve been an editor now for more years than I’d like to admit, and I believe I’m pretty good at it. I’m pretty good at it, I feel, because I am detail oriented by nature. Some people, especially those who don’t really comprehend how important it is to be exact when you communicate, would call my penchant for details “nitpicking.” Yet, oddly enough, even if it is nitpicking — and even if I am guilty of it — my desire for correctness and precision does seem to be confined to issues of language. I say that because, outside of the arena of editing, I’ve always considered myself a fairly easygoing person overall. I even managed to be cordial when my longtime friend (and fellow editor) Mary Ellen bought me a jolly red T-shirt for Christmas that said, “Should anal retentive have a hyphen?” It was all a joke, of course. Hardy-har-har. (By the way: It should, according to Merriam-Webster.) In short, I’m not troubled by many things — except for three small items.

As I reveal the tiny little causes of my periodic eye twitching and teeth gnashing, let me say this first: Although the grievances are ridiculously small compared with issues like nuclear disarmament, economic reform, and getting any two Republicans and Democrats in Congress to agree, I’ve been putting up with these annoying issue “gnats” for 32 years and 7 months now, and I feel I’ve been a good sport about it long enough. The problems involve the mispronunciation of certain very simple words. They’re “dumb little English things,” as my husband puts it. More accurately, they’re dumb little speech things.

Now, if the speaker’s native language isn’t English, or if he has difficulty speaking, is hard of hearing, or has issues with vision, I don’t chide him for the mispronunciations. But the fortunate people who otherwise have no speech, hearing, or vision issues, understand English, and still choose to misuse the aforesaid “dumb little English things” can help it. Although they have better sense, they elect to ignore what is quite plainly printed in front of them. Even worse, they choose to pay no mind to the kind and patient (if anal-retentive) souls who tactfully (and repeatedly) try to correct them. And it’s rather easy, really, if they would just take a moment to look at the words and sound them out as they are written on the page.

Simple enough, right? Apparently not.

My first grievance is the way some otherwise smart, sensible husbands insist on tacking on an h to the end of the word height when they say it: heighth. I know it’s a “colloquial variant” of height from Old English, but to me, it may as well be fingernails across a chalkboard. I think it’s because I hear it so often: My husband finds a way to introduce the word into at least every other conversation he has with me on a daily basis. If you ever choose to visit our home, chances are you’ll hear me accentuating the t sound so frequently (tee-tee-tee-tee) you might surmise that I was giggling if it weren’t for the strained, contorted look on my face.

I’ll admit that my husband does make a good argument. (And I do begin to worry when he starts making sense.) Why do similar words like depth, width, breadth, and length use the th, when height fails to? Apparently, others concur. Go to any Ace Hardware, Lowe’s, or Home Depot, and you’ll hear heighth so often your head will reel around faster than MIT’s famed cyclotron does when it accelerates protons.

As to my second grievance, which I also hear with unfortunate consistency, it has something in common with height — except that in this case, my husband pronounces the t when it isn’t even present in the word. I’m talking about across. I hear my spouse saying acrost about as frequently as he says heighth. And I ask myself: What is it with the t’s? First, he doesn’t accentuate the t when he should with heighth, and then he uses it when he shouldn’t with acrost. So my next thought, obviously, is that he is doing this on purpose to irritate me worse than his ear-piercingly loud radio does. Either that, or I’ve managed to confound (and/or irritate) him with all of the tee-tee-teeing I’ve done, and now he feels that he must add the t sound to everything. And then I think perhaps we both need remedial help: he with his confounded pronunciations (and/or desire to irritate), and I with my aforementioned propensity toward anal-retentiveness and trying to set things right.

As to the third grievance, we can throw the theory of a possible issue with t’s right in the garbage with the eggshells and banana peels, because this third word involves the transposition of the letters er. The word is prescription. The correct pronunciation includes this prefix: pre. But what I hear at home is perscription, which I think is being confused with perspiration, or permission, or persecution (most likely), or Heaven knows what. This mispronunciation is occurring with more frequency in our home these days because we are often discussing the common medications that go along with being middle-aged. In fact, the word perscription rings in my ear almost as often as our loud, annoying, old German cuckoo clock bellows and gongs the passage of each 15 minutes (an issue, I dare say, for another essay).

I can see I’ve got to clarify something. My spouse and I have managed to live in relative harmony for more than three decades now, and we see eye to eye on a great many things, except for his three utterly absurd mispronunciations (and his loud radio, and his cuckoo clock, lest we forget).

In my fervent desire to help through the years, I have tried countless things, including showing him the pronunciation guides available in several print and web-based dictionaries, along with playing audio files of the words actually being pronounced, along with pronouncing the words myself with such fanatical commitment that I sound like I’ve jumped the couch, rounded the bend, and am waiting for express transport to the fruitcake farm. “Height, across, prescription. Across, prescription, height. Prescription, height, across.” I sound like a loon no matter which way the words come out of my mouth.

It is, I’m afraid, the great curse of editors far and wide to be bestowed with a penchant for caring about these things — about the devilish little details that normal people may think are simply not worth caring about. We editors are the nitpickers, the sticklers, the meticulous souls, the dedicated individuals who strive for correct usage of the written and spoken word, and yes, we are, too, the anal-retentive pests who very probably annoy those around us if we complain too loudly about the many oddities we see and hear among today’s writers and speakers of English.

Editors, you must understand, cannot look at a menu without finding a misspelling. We cannot read a memo, a note, a letter, a dispatch, an article, a paper, a flyer, an insert, a brochure, a community newsletter, a theater playbill, or one sentence of website content without spotting a typo. And this extends to speech as well. If we hear a mispronounced word, it is ingrained in us to tactfully correct it. This is not because we feel we are better than anyone. To the contrary, many of the editors I know are decent, modest souls who are in fact fairly understanding and easy enough to get along with, and we are not robots — we are human, and we make mistakes. No, our careful scrutiny stems from a sense of wanting to help. We want to help others understand, and write without error, and speak correctly, because we care enough to want to help them be at their best — when they give their presentations, have their meetings, mass-mail their emails and letters, create their websites, prepare their résumés, or sit for their interviews. Yet we are looked on as peculiar creatures who happen to know a bunch of silly language rules and stupidly care about the irritating minutiae that a great many others find so unimportant.

It is a curse, I tell you.

Look. Obviously, I didn’t create the pronunciation and language rules; I’m just one of the dedicated idiots who is attempting to enforce them. English, we all know, can be a perplexing language, and there isn’t anything we can do about it. The language has worked well enough for hundreds upon thousands of years, and it will not change, no matter how hell-bent my spouse and his associates are on lending credibility to their incorrect — and ridiculous — variations.

Nevertheless, aside from all of my blathering — my passionate attempts to right all of these little wrongs one husband at a time — I believe sincerely that all of us can still manage to live in harmony if we can at least attempt to spell our words correctly and consult a dictionary if we cannot. I know we can do that much if we put our minds to it and are willing to try.

Please imagine with me, for a moment, a world in which reference texts such as print and online dictionaries are regularly consulted with great ease, frequency, and glee when one is unsure of a spelling or a pronunciation. A world in which human resources such as editors (who are calmly standing by) are given more than a passing sneer and instead are valued for what they know and are actually sought out for their advice and expertise.

If perchance this editorial utopia were to occur one wonderful day in the near future, then I would know for certain that mine is not a lost cause. At that moment, I would at last feel a sense of tranquility overtake me, as if I were floating on a delightfully cottony, billowy cumulus cloud meandering peacefully across a calm, clear, and sunny blue sky. In fact, I know that my sense of peace, at that very moment, would rise to an extraordinary new height. And that simple, lovely feeling would be almost cathartic enough to make me consider throwing all of my prescriptions away.

One day.

Category: Memoir, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing, SNHU Student