Word Matters Podcast

On the Pronunciation of 'Often'

Word Matters, Episode 26

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First, we examine the common word 'often.' Is one way of saying it more correct than the other? And does the English language delight in making us distrust our eyes and ears? Then, we look into the language of getting out of a rut and the difference between getting "on track" vs. "untracked."

Download the episode here.


(intro music – “Build Something Beautiful” by Tobias Voigt)

(teaser clips)

Peter Sokolowski: Why do we often see a letter that we don't pronounce?

Neil Serven: It's a strange word because it also has that image of coming off the rails. You would think you do not want to be derailed. You would think you want to remain on the track. And yet sports writers have come to use this phrase "to come untracked."

Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters: a disputed pronunciation and the language of getting out of a rut. I'm Emily Brewster and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point.

Show of hands. When you want to say that something occurs frequently, do you say it happens \AWF-tun\ or does it happen \AW-fun\? Is one pronunciation more correct than the other? Here's Peter Sokolowski on a common adverb said two ways.

Peter Sokolowski: So how do you pronounce the word O-F-T-E-N? That's my question.

Ammon Shea: Poorly.

Neil Serven: I say \AW-fun.

Peter Sokolowski: I say \AW-fun. I don't pronounce the T that's in often, but we know it's spelled O-F-T-E-N. And there's a very fair question, which is why do we often see a letter that we don't pronounce? And the thing about this word is, it's clear that it was pronounced in the past. It's a variant of the word oft, which we still have in English. We use it in phrases like "oft-repeated" or "oft-quoted." We still have the words like oftentimes or oft-times in the dictionary, but they all kind of sound archaic. Often is of course a standard English. It's a word we all use every day. And yet that T, that's what's called a medial T, the T in the middle there, has dropped and it's just made me think about a few others. Has dropped, but it hasn't. I mean, we hear \AWF-tun\ fairly often and it could be a simple choice that you make. It could be regional. I'm not exactly sure why some people say \AWF-tun\ and why some people say \AW-fun\ today, however-

Emily Brewster: Can I interject here because I didn't answer your question at first because my story with the word \AWF-tun\ and the pronunciation of it is a little bit complicated. I said \AWF-tun\ until high school, when a friend corrected me and told me that it was \AW-fun\, and I switched my pronunciation at that point. And I remember he pointed out to me that soften was not pronounced \SAWF-tun\, and I really felt like that just clinched it. And so I changed my own pronunciation because I am that kind of speaker. Adult me wouldn't have made the same switch, but I was convinced by the logic. I think also when I was learning how to spell, I often adopted pronunciations that would help me with spelling. I did that consciously.

Ammon Shea: Who is this guy that told you this, we should look him up now and see if he's a senior editor at a dictionary...

Emily Brewster: Maybe he says \AWF-tun\ now, I don't know.

Ammon Shea: See where that's got him in life.

Peter Sokolowski: Well, shame is a powerful motivator.

Emily Brewster: It was more logic than shame. It was more logic than shame. But I remember being surprised when I came to work for Merriam-Webster to see that, when I started working for the company, the \AWF-tun\ pronunciation had a mark at the pronunciation, an obelus, to say that this is a disfavored pronunciation.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah, stigmatized.

Emily Brewster: Yeah.

Peter Sokolowski: And that was the symbol in our print dictionaries, that little division symbol, the obelus. If you see that in a print dictionary from Merriam-Webster, that means what follows is stigmatized. So it's recognized and common, but you will likely be criticized or challenged.

Emily Brewster: Yes. We still have one at nucular, I think.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah, for example.

Emily Brewster: But we don't have one at often anymore.

Peter Sokolowski: And that's an interesting development. It only was dropped last year. And so in 2019, we dropped that "stigmatized" label because both of these variants, we can call them, are sufficiently common and sufficiently standard to be regular dictionary pronunciations. And that's kind of interesting, but soften and hasten and fasten and listen, they all have those T's, those medial T's, that have been dropped and they don't have this similar variant pronunciation. We don't say \SAWF-tun. That's not an acceptable pronunciation.

Emily Brewster: We do say \WAHN-tun.

Peter Sokolowski: \WAHN-tun. That's an interesting point. These things often have to do with the vowels that surround them. And the fact is, if we go back to around 1600 we know and we learned from a work that was written at that time, the E. J. Dobson English Pronunciation 1500-1700, notes that Queen Elizabeth herself did not pronounce the T. So Queen Elizabeth was sort of the model for this prestige pronunciation of often without the T, but phonetically spelled lists that were made even back then included the T. So it was recognized that this is how you spell the word, but it's not how you always say it. And so the prestige or upper-class standard pronunciation starting around 1600 has followed the Queen's example. And even later, if you look in dictionaries, they will mark the pronunciation that uses the T is often used in singing or in kind of poetic readings. In our Unabridged from 1934. We give that note also that says "the pronunciation often until recently, generally considered as more or less illiterate, is not uncommon among the educated in some sections and is often used in singing."

Emily Brewster: What?

Peter Sokolowski: And first of all, that word illiterate is an amazing usage note in a dictionary that we, needless to say, do not use any more.

Ammon Shea: I was going to adopt that for myself. "More or less illiterate" is going to be the tagline on all my social media.

Peter Sokolowski: More or less illiterate.

Emily Brewster: "More or less illiterate" and it's about a pronunciation.

Peter Sokolowski: And a lot of pronunciations are influenced by spelling. We call them spelling pronunciations. Of course, there are words that we see more than we hear, for example, like albeit. There are a bunch of those that are much more frequently encountered in writing than they are in any kind of spoken language. And so you sometimes end up with pronunciations that sound more like the word looks than it may have sounded originally.

Emily Brewster: Oh, definitely. And that makes me think of words that I think have largely fallen out of spoken English, that nobody knows the way that they used to be pronounced. The word W-A-I-S-T-C-O-A-T. I see it only in books. Right. And I say \WAYST-koht\, and I believe that the pronunciation, if I'd lived a hundred years ago, I would've said \WESS-kut. I'm not going to say \WESS-kut\, I'm going to say \WAYST-koht.

Peter Sokolowski: That's exactly what's going on here, which is, keep in mind that around 1600 when Queen Elizabeth established this standard, most people were illiterate. And as people were learning more and reading more, of course they were influenced in their pronunciations by what a word was spelled like. And that's exactly what's happened here. And yet, \WAYST-koht\ sounds completely standard to me, and it might've sounded strange a hundred years ago.

Neil Serven: You mentioned those other verbs that have the medial T and add the E-N like hasten, there's this sort of application to get to the state of the adjective. Soften means to make something soft. Hasten means to move hastily. With often, obviously that's not the case. You don't often something, you don't make something more frequent by often. Often is just its own adjective. I would say that's certainly a word that I learned its pronunciation before I learned it's spelling. I learned the concept of often before I learned it as a reader, I would say. It's not the kind of word that I would have read then pronounced and then wondered what it meant. By the time I understood it in reading and writing, then I understood what sound, what phonetic sound in what word in my vocabulary I would associate it with. So I think in the case of often, I remember hearing people who would pronounce it \AWF-tun\ and I didn't think they were necessarily saying it wrong. I just thought they were saying it differently. But I do wonder if there's that sort of extra effort of thought that we give to like, should we pronounce the T in listen or not, that we don't give to words like hasten or chasten or soften where those all seem to follow the E-N pattern, the pattern of similar verbs that are in the same cluster.

Peter Sokolowski: No, absolutely.

Emily Brewster: There is a concept called language regard, and that is the idea that conscious thinking about language can influence the way that speakers of the language use it. And some of us think about these things and others of us do not think about those things. It doesn't make you a better person if you think about these things. Some people, like me, will at the age of whatever it was, 16 or so, change my pronunciation of a word because I'm told that this is not the right pronunciation, or I say C-L-O-T-H-E-S \KLOHTHZ. And I've been made fun of since college. It's a habit that I developed because this is how the word is spelled. And there's some people who think about the words that they use in a kind of a meta way. You're thinking in meta language, as opposed to just using the language.

Peter Sokolowski: Sure. I say \KLOHTHZ\ also.

Emily Brewster: Do you say \KLOHTHZ\?

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah, absolutely.

Ammon Shea: As opposed to what?

Peter Sokolowski: Well, exactly. We give \KLOHZ\ as the principle pronunciation in our dictionary. And then we give also less frequently with the voiced theta. So \KLOHTHZ.

Neil Serven: I believe one of the first times I was asked to speak on television I talked about something being a statistical \OUT-lee-er\ instead of an \OUT-lye-er\, because that was a word that I'd never really heard a lot. I had seen it in print many times, but I had never really used it in my own discourse until I needed to that time. And it wasn't until later I realized it was pronounced \OUT-lye-er\ because lying outside of the quantity of the norm I guess is what you're talking about when you say "I'm an outlier." And yet I was looking at that L-I-E-R and I was thinking of words like likelier, which seemed more familiar to me. So there's an internet meme that goes around sometimes. Don't make fun of a person's pronunciation. If a person mispronounces words, that means they learned it by reading. The way we get to these different pronunciations is sometimes, never the same story twice, is what I'm saying.

Emily Brewster: Right. Different modes of language acquisition. You can learn it through spoken language or you can learn it through written language or you can learn it through signed language, right? There are lots of different ways to acquire words. And there can be implications of having learned a word in one way or another. I'm sure in my family everybody must've said \AWF-tun. That's why I said often. Do you say the R, the first R in library?

Neil Serven: I do now. That struck me as a kind of thing I was corrected. When I said \LYE-bair-ee\ I would have a teacher-

Peter Sokolowski: That's quite stigmatized. Yeah.

Emily Brewster: That's right, that is quite stigmatized.

Neil Serven: I would have a teacher that would say, "No, it's a \LYE-brair-ee." Of course in school you talk about libraries a lot because you have a library in your school, usually.

Peter Sokolowski: And February is tough. It's a hard word to say. And Wednesday. Of course, English phonetics and English pronunciation and orthography don't match. That's why we have spelling bees in English. And so there are words like Wednesday that if you were to pronounce it the way it's spelled, it would seem kind of absurd.

Emily Brewster: Right? Nobody says \WED-ness-day.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah.

Neil Serven: Nobody says Wednesday. Nobody says \KAH-luh-nul\ instead of colonel.

Ammon Shea: Right. It was a \FEB-roo-air-ee\ \WED-nuz-day\ in \kuh-NEK-tuh-kit\ with the \KAH-luh-nul.

Emily Brewster: You are listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. We'll get on track, or is it untracked after the break Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the Word of the Day. A brief look at the history and definition of one word available at merriam-webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media visit the NEPM Podcast hub at nepm.org.

Ammon Shea: I'm Ammon Shea. Do you have a question about the origin, history or meaning of a word? Email us at wordmatters@m-w.com.

Emily Brewster: If your favorite team is, perish the thought, going through a bit of a slump, some might say that they need to get "back on track," but depending on the sportswriter, one might also say they need to get "untracked." Next up here's Neil Serven on a pair of metaphors that are opposites on paper, but identical in application.

Neil Serven: If you watch a lot of sports or read about a lot of sports like I do, you come across what I would consider the go-to phrases for the sports writer or the sports announcer. They might talk about professional hitters in baseball. They might talk about momentum swings. They might say a player is a clubhouse presence. They might say a manager is a players' manager. They might describe a player as a gamer. There are all these phrases and idioms that get used over and over again in the description of games, in the description of players and how well players are doing. One that comes to mind is the phrase on track, which certainly exists beyond the realm of sports. We define on track the phrase at the entry for track, as "achieving or doing what is necessary or expected." And we see examples like "students who are on track for college," we see examples like "a bill that is on track to pass through the Senate." That means that it seems to be doing what it needs to do to become successful and be passed or go through college and succeed and do well.

Emily Brewster: Yeah and that seems like it's a railroad allusion, right? Is it?

Neil Serven: It seems likely. Tou talk about the tenure track of a professor. The professor is in a train car and if he just does what he's doing, then he's going to end up at the station where he wants to go. So we say also, a person headed in the right direction is on the right track. We modify it a little bit. It's possible to be on the wrong track as well. So you could say, if you are in the right train, if you're heading to where you want to go, you're on the right track. And if you boarded the wrong train and you're headed to Albuquerque, when you didn't want to go to Albuquerque, you're on the wrong track.

Peter Sokolowski: Very literal.

Neil Serven: Very literal. We also have the phrase off track, which can be used in the way of other terminology. If you think the country is off track, you might answer a survey: "Do you think the country is on the right track? Or is it off track?" Continuing the railroad metaphor, you could say something is coming off the rails, "a relationship is coming off the rails." Obviously that promotes the image of a train being derailed, coming off its track and crashing.

Ammon Shea: We also have the wrong side of the tracks. Don't wait for railroad imagery, which was the unfashionable neighborhood in a town on the wrong side-

Emily Brewster: That's right.

Neil Serven: Right. With the idea that the railroad track is dividing the neighborhoods and certain areas are more appealing to live than others. But when it comes to sports writing, there's this other term that gets used that I think causes some confusion. And that is untracked. So we define the word untracked in the dictionary as "to cause to escape from a slump." If a batter is 0 for his last 13, he is in a slump, he's trying to do something new to get untracked. Which means he wants to get out of the slump.

Emily Brewster: That is so unfamiliar to me.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah.

Ammon Shea: Me too.

Neil Serven: So here's an example from Peter King, a sports writer for Sports Illustrated. "Tennessee has lost two or three and can't seem to get its offense untracked. 'We need to find our edge and find it quickly,' quarterback Samari Rolle said after a 16-13 loss to the Jaguars." Now we're talking about track in a different way. Now the track is something bad. You're in a slump and you're on this track and you want to get untracked. It's a strange word because it also has that image of coming off the rails. You would think you do not want to be derailed. You would think you want to remain on the track. And yet sportswriters have come to use this phrase "to come untracked" to mean to break out of a slump.

Emily Brewster: Yeah. It's a different track.

Neil Serven: It's a different type of track. And well, that's the question. Why are we talking about the track this way like it's a bad thing, when up till now, when we say we want to stay on track, we're on track for a good season. The track has always been a good thing. Could it be a different type of track? Well, that's one of the theories behind this is that the use of untracked... early use might date from horse racing. Obviously there's a track that the horses run on, but then the track might refer to a rut. The rut is a bad thing when it comes to horse racing. You don't want to be sinking down into the dirt as you're running. You want to just be staying on the surface and not being slogged down by soft track, for example. So, now what happens is, people confuse "to get on track" or "to come back on track" with "come untracked" or "to get untracked." So now we will often hear both of these phrases essentially to mean the same thing. To be on the track or to be untracked means to start having success again, after you've been slumping for a while.

Emily Brewster: Yeah. It's terribly confusing.

Peter Sokolowski: But could the track be itself just kind of like a gauge or like a record, like a paper record, like he's on track. Not an image, but kind of a way of recording progress. Does that make sense? Like recording strikes and balls. You're keeping track.

Neil Serven: Yeah, for keeping track and possibly, I think, as a pattern of success for track, that does make some sense. It makes more sense to think of the track as something that you want to stay on. The fact of untracked then being used to mean "come out of a slump," then tells you that the track is now a bad thing to stay on.

Peter Sokolowski: You're right.

Emily Brewster: The oldest meaning of the word track is that it was a mark that was left by something that was moving. So a ship's wake was its track. Or if you were on a sleigh, the marks that you would leave behind the marks left behind by something in motion, that's the earliest use of the word track.

Neil Serven: That's what happens when you follow an animal's tracks, right? It's sort of the same idea. And so you want to stay, when you're hunting or when you're pursuing a game, you want to stay on the track that was left by the animal before.

Emily Brewster: Oh, so an untracked athlete doesn't want to be hunted down?

Ammon Shea: I can tell Emily, you watch about as much sports as I do.

Emily Brewster: I am really reaching here.

Ammon Shea: Isn't there a possibility because we have other kind of similar idioms. Like we have "on the road to recovery" has no resemblance to "on the road to perdition." You're both on the road but one case it's great one case it's not.

Neil Serven: It depends on where the road is headed, right?

Ammon Shea: I agree that typically you would imagine one would rather stay on track than untracked, but mightn't this just be a case where sometimes language doesn't make that much sense, particularly when dealing with sports.

Neil Serven: I think with sportswriters in particular, they tend to have their pet phrases. Sportswriters often work together. They're writing about the same thing and frankly, when you're writing about a baseball game night after night, you're going to look for these comfortable phrases that tell you whether a player is doing well or not. And I think they, probably writers tend to borrow from each other a lot, especially if they're working in close quarters like a press box. So the reason "come untracked" just kind of settled in without really being questioned, it was probably because if writers of horse races were using it, those writers were then covering other sports. And then so to be out of a slump, meant to come untracked. And it made sense to the writer, even if the reader never made a connection or a comparison between that and "come on track."

Emily Brewster: Well, it's like with language in any other sphere of understanding and influence. If the word is understood by its context, and it makes sense to the people who come across it, and then it continues on its way and has that function in the language. And certainly political writing also has its own similar phrases that get repeated and used, take on specific meaning, that to an outsider are a bit opaque.

Neil Serven: Yeah, certainly. And the imagery that comes up might be different from one person to another. With a track, one might be thinking less of a path, like a road or a railroad gauge, then they are thinking of a rut. And of course we have another idiom. To be "in a rut" means you're in a funk. You're having this pattern of failure.

Emily Brewster: Why couldn't they have said unrutted. This player needs to get unrutted.

Neil Serven: It would make more sense. Wouldn't it?

Emily Brewster: Can you help them do that?

Neil Serven: I don't have that many connections in the sports world, really. I'm just a fan.

Emily Brewster: Sportswriters out there in the world. I vote-

Neil Serven: Stop using untracked and start using unrutted.

Emily Brewster: Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us on Apple Podcasts or send us an email at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org and for the Word of the Day and all your general dictionary needs visit mariam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt, artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by Adam Maid and John Voci. For Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokoloski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is a production of Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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