The Grammarphobia Blog

Should “banal” rhyme with “anal”?

Q: I believe the correct pronunciation of the word “banal” is “BAY-nul,” but people say “bu-NAHL” because of embarrassment at the rhyme with “anal.” What are your thoughts?

A: I don’t think there’s a single correct way to pronounce “banal.” The two dictionaries I consult the most, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, each list at least three acceptable pronunciations.

The first one in both dictionaries is bu-NAL (rhyming with “canal’). Others are BAY-nul (rhyming with “anal”) and bu-NAHL (the last syllable rhymes with “doll”). Merriam-Webster’s also lists bay-NAL (the last syllable is accented and rhymes with “pal”).

American Heritage’s Usage Panel is all over the place on this, with 46 percent preferring bu-NAL, 38 percent favoring BAY-nul, and 14 percent going for bu-NAHL. For what it’s worth, I’m in the bu-NAL camp. But I agree with American Heritage that the “pronunciation of banal is not settled among educated speakers of American English.”

If in doubt, of course, you can always use “trite.”

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