Is your pronunciation on point? Take this quiz to find out
What should you do if you say something one way and the judge you’re appearing before says it another? That happened to Michael H. Gottesman, the lawyer who represented the Daubert family in the 1993 lawsuit about the admissibility of expert-witness testimony. In oral argument before the Supreme Court, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist mispronounced the litigants’ name. Gottesman then made the tactical decision to mispronounce his own clients’ name in the same way rather than correct the chief justice. Hence we now have the /DAW-buhrt/ standard—not /doh-BAIR/.
As professional speakers, lawyers should be second to none in their zeal to master the fine points of English pronunciation—or, rather, American English pronunciation. Newscasters, of course, have historically been preoccupied with the subject—both NBC and the BBC having long published official guides to proper pronunciation. If lawyers have such a guide, it has to be Black’s Law Dictionary.
That’s primarily because the chief orthoepist (pronunciation expert) for Black’s is Charles Harrington Elster, whose research into the evolution of American pronunciation is second to none. When I became editor-in-chief of Black’s in the mid-1990s, hiring Elster to retool all the pronunciations in an easy-to-follow system was an early order of business.
His most interesting findings and recommendations on English pronunciation appear in an excellent treatise with a whimsical name: The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations. In 523 pages, Elster explains how and when certain pronunciations have gone off course—and he argues forcefully for the acceptance of change when the linguistic tide of educated English has simply turned.
What follows is a quiz based on Elster’s right/wrong calls—all of which are backed up by essays in his Big Book. Take the whole quiz before peeking at the answers. I imagine you’ll find the exercise most illuminating.
This article originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: “Is That How You Say It? Take this quiz to learn whether your pronunciation is on point.”
Bryan A. Garner, the editor-in-chief of Black's Law Dictionary over the past four unabridged editions, teaches CLE seminars through the Dallas-based company LawProse Inc. He is the author of more than 20 books, including the HBR Guide to Better Business Writing.