The Grammarphobia Blog

Preppy pronunciation

Q: Why is there such a proliferation of “prepatory” schools these days? I thought the word was “preparatory.” I’ve even heard a spot on WNYC that uses “prepatory.” If my sons were still of school age, I certainly would not send them to that prep school!

A: We can’t tell you why this is showing up, only that it’s considered a mispronunciation and not yet listed as standard (or as any kind of variant) in any dictionary we can find.

What’s being dropped in this pronunciation is not just the second “r” but the entire second syllable. The five-syllable “preparatory” becomes the four-syllable PREP-a-tor-ee.

Standard American dictionaries include several five-syllable pronunciations. They can be stressed on either the first syllable (PREP-er-a-tor-ee) or the second (pre-PAR-a-tor-ee).

One of the references we checked, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), does accept a four-syllable pronunciation in which the first “r” is retained: PREP-ra-tor-ee.

By the way, the British pronounce the word as four syllables with the stress on the second syllable (pri-PAIR-a-tree), according to the Cambridge Dictionaries Online.

The adjective “preparatory,” meaning preliminary or introductory, entered English in the early 1400s, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. It was borrowed from Middle French, but its ultimate source was the Latin verb praeparare (to prepare).

The term “preparatory school” first showed up in the mid-1600s and the short form, “prep school,” in the late 1800s, according to published references in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED’s earliest citation for “prep school” is from an 1891 issue of the Cosmos, the student newspaper at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa:

“A prep school girl being told by her teacher to parse the sentence, ‘He kissed me,’ consented reluctantly.”

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