Q: I’m sure this is covered somewhere, but I can’t find anything definitive. My boss always uses the word “ideal” for “idea,” as in “I have an ideal that will improve the program.” Is this correct usage? Could it be a regional thing? My boss was raised in the South.
A: No, it’s not correct. Your boss means he has an “idea” that will improve the program.
In modern usage, an “idea” is a mental image of a plan or scheme or notion – some conception that arises in your mind, often as a means of solving a problem.
But an “ideal” is a standard of perfection or an ultimate goal. Your ideals (humanitarianism, integrity, etc.) are part of your character, or whatever it is that makes you who you are.
You might say, for instance, that bringing irrigation to a parched wasteland is a good idea. But ending hunger is the ideal.
We’re not aware that mistaking “ideal” for “idea” is a regional thing, but it’s possible that pronouncing “idea” as ideal may be a regionalism.
We’ve seen a few comments online about people who pronounce “idea” that way in the South and the West, but this pronunciation doesn’t seem very common. And I haven’t noticed anything authoritative written on the subject.
You’re probably aware, though, that “idea” is often pronounced idear in certain parts of England and the Eastern US. We wrote a blog item about this last fall.
By the way, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) lists four possible pronunciations for “idea,” but none of them sound at all like “ideal.”
Sorry we can’t be more helpful. We realize that this isn’t the ideal answer.