How to pronounce interpret

This week’s seminar speaker (German, but currently working in the US) made several interesting pronunciation mistakes. Most notably, he kept pronouncing the verb interpret so incorrectly that I did not even recognize it immediately.

To understand what went wrong, we best look at the phonetic spelling. The are actually several pronunciations of interpret that are considered to be correct. The OED gives [ɪnˈtɜː(r)prət], where the r in parentheses is included only in American English. However, other sources (e.g., Longman) in particular include [ɪnˈtɜːprɪt], which will play an important role in the context of the aforementioned seminar speaker.

The phonetic spelling [ɪnˈtɜːprɪt] reveals several important details regarding the pronunciation of interpret. First, the stress (indicated by ‘) is on the second syllable. Second, the first e in interpret is pronounced as a long sound (ɜː), whereas the second e is pronounced as a short sound (ɪ). In strong contrast, the seminar speaker consistently pronounced interpret as [‘ɪntəprɪ:t], stressing the first syllable, pronouncing the first e short and the second e long. These three mistakes combined make it very hard to understand the word, so people had to rely on context. A possible origin of this mispronunciation is that the prefix inter- is pronounced very differently in words such as international [ˌɪntəˈnæʃnəl]. However, pronunciation rules in English are not entirely systematic, so that you should not extrapolate from one word to another.

As always, let me strongly suggest to follow the principle that your English is never too good to look up pronunciations in a dictionary. Doing so very often leads to interesting discoveries, even for native speakers.



Can you really count to five?


I’m quite sure that even people who are not very confident about their English in general would not hesitate to claim that they can of course count to five. However, if you take pronunciation into consideration, this is not be true for many of them. (This post was inspired by an announcement I recently heard on a train in which five was pronounced incorrectly.)

Let’s stick to tradition and start at the beginning.

1 – one

Most people get this one right but there are in fact two possible pronunciations: [wʌn] and [wɒn] (used by 70% and 30% of British English speakers, respectively, see the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary). To hear the different o sounds, click here and here.

2 – two

The pronunciation of two is straight-forward, namely [tuː], identical to the word too.

3 – three

This is where it’s getting tricky. The th is a major challenge for many nonnative speakers, as explained in detail in this post. Listen to the correct pronunciation [θriː] here.

4 – four

After the difficult number three, four is quite easy in comparison. The pronunciation is [fɔː(r)] (the r is for American English), identical to that of the strong form of for.

5 – five

Congratulations if you have made it so far, but there is one more obstacle to overcome. Unbeknown to virtually all German-speaking people, the v in five is not pronounced like the letter f at the beginning but like the v in seven. Hence, the correct pronunciation of five is [faɪv]. In fact, v in English is never pronounced as f, but there is a single word for which f is pronounced as v. If you want to know which word, read this post.

To give away: a costly mistake

A fellow member of my gym tried to find someone to take over her membership. She posted on Facebook in German, but also included the following English translation:

Hallo! Ich gebe meine Fitnessstudio-Mitgliedschaft ab. Bei Interesse gerne melden.
Hi! I’m giving away my gym membership. If you’re interested, let me know.

The problem is that “to give away” specifically implies that you don’t want anything in return. According to the Oxford English Dictionary:

to give something away: to give something as a gift

I’m sure it would be much easier to find someone to take your membership for free!

To charge or not to charge a card

Almost every week, I hear one of my German colleagues say

I have to charge my card

just before we go to lunch in the canteen. Interestingly, this means essentially the opposite of what they mean to say. When you charge a card, the card owner will have less money than before. What my colleagues do when they “charge their card” is to put money on the card, to top up their card, or to load their card. Another expression with the same meaning would be to add money to their card. The confusion may arise form the fact that in German, you use the verb aufladen in this context, which translates to “to charge” in English.

Monotonic/monotone vs. monotonous

At a physics conference I attended last week in Berlin, I came across yet another example of tricky distinctions to master. Several  speakers confused the words monotonic or monotone with monotonous. While these words can be used interchangeably in some situations, only monotonic and monotone are correct in a mathematical context.

You can check the exact meaning using, for example, the Oxford online dictionary. For monotonous, you’ll find:

“never changing and therefore boring”

as well the ssynonyms dull and repetitious. Although you may also consider a monotonic function to be boring, this is not what you usually want to express in discussing your results. Instead, monotonic has a specific mathematical meaning. For example, the picture below shows a function that is monotonic (non-decreasing in this case).path4143

The fact that monotonic/monotone and monotonous translate to the same German word (monoton) does not exactly help. This is why we were taught in school that you cannot just take any possible translation from the dictionary but have to consider context. For example, entering monoton into the popular online dictionary  produces monotonous, monotone, and monotonic (among other choices), with monotone and monotonic being clearly marked as mathematical expressions.

How to pronounce expertise

During a recent talk I heard someone (a nonnative speaker) pronounce the noun expertise in a way I had not heard before, namely as [ˌekspɜːˈtaiz], similar perhaps to exercise (listen here). While at first I thought this was simply a pronunciation mistake, it turns out that the verb to expertise (yes, there is a verb, and it means “to study or investigate as an expert”, see here) is in fact pronounced [ˌekspɜːˈtaiz]. However, the standard pronunciation of the noun expertise is [ˌekspɜːˈtiːz]. You can listen to the correct pronunciation here.


The singular they

The English language makes it relatively easy to write in a gender-neutral way because nouns in general do not have a gender; a gender is only specified when referring to people or animals. Hence, there is only one indefinite article (the) and two definite articles (a or an, see here). Compare this to German, where almost every noun has a clear male or female form that requires to chose the correct definite (der, die, das) or indefinite (ein, eine) article. This has inspired concepts such as the Binnen-I to avoid discrimination. However, there are occasions where even in English you would be tempted to write “he/she” or “his/her” in order to not imply that a person is male or female. As an example, consider the sentence

A reader of this post spent five minutes of his/her time to learn about the singular they.

To avoid such rather ugly constructions, the English language offers the so-called singular they. For our example, it allows us to write

A reader of this post spent five minutes of their time to learn about the singular they.

That’s pretty neat, isn’t it? I suggest you follow this link to see a few more examples. Using the singular they may feel awkward in the beginning but is perfectly correct. (Amusingly, I once overheard a German explaining to a native English speaker that it was wrong.)