Write Better Right Now (It Could
Save Your Life)
(under revision) by Mary Campbell
Order or download
this beautiful book of poems,
prayers, meditations, songs,
Unfamiliar Territory:
Prayers, Meditations, and Songs,
Vol. 1,
by Mary Campbell

    A few months ago I discovered that I’d been pronouncing detritus incorrectly all
    my life. That’s a small exaggeration; I probably didn’t use the word at all before
    high school. I doubt that I ever complained to Mom that my brother had  
    ransacked my dresser drawers and left detritus in the wake of his illegal search. If
    he had done so, I wouldn’t have noticed. My bedroom was a monument to
    detritus. My mom dealt cleverly with the pile of rubbish that was my room; she
    closed the door. Mom was detritus-prone herself.

    I listen to numerous podcasts, and I had heard a podcaster pronounce detritus as
    DET-rit-us, rhyming more or less with “rest of us.” I’ve always said duh-TRY-tuss,
    as if it were an inflammatory disease: appendicitis, colitis, detritus. I’ve even
    written poems in which I rhymed detritus with something, as in
           “The light is bright on my de-TRY-tritus.”

    Was I going to have to change it, perhaps to “I’m so depressed about my

    Today I googled detritus, and it turns out I was right all along. Duh-TRY-tuss it is.
    I'll sleep better tonight.


    English-speakers are forever mispronouncing things, especially if they (the English-
    speakers) read a lot. It’s bad enough that British and American pronunciations
    often differ for no good reason. But the notoriously complex English-language
    pronunciation issue is rooted in the history of English and its many borrowings
    from other languages. I treasure English for its eclectic origins, but they leave us
    with spellings that bear little relationship to pronunciation, as in through.
    Consider height and weight, chattel (pronounced CHAT-tle) and Mattel. If you
    encounter a printed word but never hear it spoken, you’re likely to pronounce it
    phonetically, or as nearly so as you can manage.

    When my daughter, Marian, was nine or ten years old, we were discussing her
    newest Nancy Drew book, The Clue of the Broken Locket (1934), and the
    characters therein—Nancy herself, of course, as well as Nancy’s father (eminent
    attorney Carson Drew), her friends (Bess Marvin and George Fayne), her sweetie
    pie (Ned Nickerson),  the Drew family housekeeper (Hannah Gruen), and, in this
    book, someone called Gladys—which, as Marian pronounced it, rhymed with
    ladies. Of course it did. We’d all pronounce it that way if we’d never met a
    Gladys or watched an episode of the television show Bewitched featuring
    Samantha’s nosy neighbor, Gladys Kravitz. Coming across the name in a book,
    you’re not likely to “hear” GLAD-iss in your mind, but rather GLADE-eez or, at
    best, GLAD-eez.

    I don’t speak of “correct” pronunciation, since the English language is fluid and
    “correctness” changes from day to day. Moreover, most dictionaries no longer
    judge the speaking habits of their users, preferring to be descriptive rather than
    prescriptive.* If you look up the word err in a dictionary, the pronunciation guide
    shows er, ur, or ur, er, depending on the publisher. Twenty or thirty years ago,
    most dictionaries gave the “correct” pronunciation first, followed by “also” and
    other common but nonstandard ways of pronouncing the word. Now they offer
    pronunciation alternatives nonjudgmentally, although the standard (read
    “correct”) pronunciation usually appears first.

    If you want prescriptive advice on pronunciation, the best source I know of is
    Charles Harrington Elster’s delightful book There Is No Zoo in Zoology (which has
    been incorporated into The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations—The Complete
    Opinionated Guide). From the title alone, you learn that (a) zoo-OLL-uh-jee is
    just plain wrong and (b) Elster’s book will tell you how and why to say it (and
    hundreds of other words) right. (It’s zoe-OLL-uh-jee, with a long O in the first
    syllable.) As useful as the book is, you’ll be dismayed to find that you’ve been
    mispronouncing two-thirds of your vocabulary for your entire adult life. Still, I
    heartily recommend Mr. Elster's books and website.

    If you want a dictionary that guides rather than merely informs you about
    pronunciation, you’ll appreciate online audio guides. Google the word and hear
    the disembodied official internet voice, which offers only one pronunciation. Not
    all the online guides agree, however, as in the case of err.

    Abused, misused, misunderstood

    ERR—It rhymes with fur, not hair, according to the Cambridge Dictionary, the
    Macmillan Dictionary, Charles Harrington Elster, and most (but not all) of the
    other sources I consulted.

    SHORT-LIVED (LONG-LIVED)—The I is long; lived rhymes with hived.

    I often err (which rhymes with her).
    I’ve said re-PRIZE and re-OCCUR
    and of-TEN and ho-MOJ-en-us.
    I’ve even been a CHAUVINIST.
    So ANYWAYS, I’m over it.
    HOUSEHOLD DETRITUS. These cuddly looking bunnies are
    actually composed of household detritus, including
    Christmas tree needles, discarded toddler toy parts, dryer
    lint, toenail clippings and human hair. (
    The astonishingly independent young detective Nancy
    Drew and her chums, Bess Marvin and George Fayne. The
    Nancy Drew series began in the 1920s, when few women
    had the freedom or the initiative shown by Nancy,
    presumably in her late teens yet permitted by her father,
    Carson Drew, to roam the countryside in her roadster
    looking for ne'er-do-wells of every stripe. She was a
    champion competitor in golf and tennis, seldom relying
    on her boyfriend, Ned Nickerson, for anything but chaste
    companionship on weekends and during the summer,
    when Ned was home from college.