The Grammarphobia Blog

Good caramel

Q: I have a couple of questions about pronunciation. I can’t stand it when people say CAR-mel for “caramel” and va-NELLA for “vanilla.” Am I too uptight or do I have a right to be annoyed?

A: “Caramel” can be pronounced with two syllables or three, according to modern dictionaries. Some reference books list the twosome first and some go first with the threesome, but both are correct.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) leads off with the two-syllable version (CAR-mel) while The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) goes with the three-syllable job (CAR-a-mel).

Dictionary palates aren’t quite as indiscriminate about “vanilla,” but you can find different pronunciations in the standard references. In Merriam-Webster’s, for instance, there are two pronunciations (va-NILL-a and va-NELL-a). American Heritage has only one (va-NILL-a).

Dictionaries often list several pronunciations for an individual word. All are usually acceptable, and the difference between them (as far as how common each is) may be so slight as to be negligible.

So, loosen up, or one of these days you’ll be singing: “You say va-NILLA and I say va-NELLA. Let’s call the whole thing off!” (My apologies to Ira Gershwin for playing with his lyrics!)

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