The Grammarphobia Blog

Long and short division

Q: Announcers on NPR pronounce “divisive” to rhyme with “missive,” while Barack Obama pronounces it, as I do, to rhyme with “incisive.” I await your pronouncement!

A: The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) lists only one pronunciation, with a long “i” (as in “vice”) in the middle syllable.

However, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) lists a second choice, with a short “i” (as in “vista”) in the middle syllable.

It’s been my experience that this second variant is primarily heard in Britain, and that the pronunciation with the long “i” is much more common in the US.

But the online version of the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English gives only the long “i” pronunciation for both UK and US English.

The Oxford English Dictionary, which agrees with Longman on the pronunciation of “divisive,” traces the word back to an English translation of Plutarch in 1603. The word is ultimately derived from the Latin divisus, or division.

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