The Grammarphobia Blog

A controversial pronunciation?

Q: Do we (that is, we Americans, who should be the authorities on proper English) prefer con-truh-VUR-shul or con-truh-VUR-see-yul?

A: We won’t get into the issue of American versus British English here.

We’ve discussed this in several posts on the blog, including one in 2008 that was prompted by a reader who thought US English had gone astray.

We’ve also written extensively about US and UK English in the first chapter of our book about language myths, Origins of the Specious.

As for the adjective “controversial,” you can’t go wrong here. It has two pronunciations in American English.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) list both the four-syllable pronunciation ending in shul as well as the five-syllable one ending in see-yul.

Interestingly, the Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for the word lists only one pronunciation:  con-truh-VUR-shul.

However, the OED says it’s an adaptation of the Latin controversialis (a word with all the vowels pronounced).

This suggests to us that “controversial” may have had the longer pronunciation when it entered English in the 16th century.

And in case you’re interested, the OED’s entry for “controversy” also has only one pronunciation, CON-truh-vur-see (not the pompous kun-TRUV-ur-see).

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