Mispronouncing words at work... to correct or not to correct?
August 30, 2018 12:58 PM   Subscribe

My co-worker regularly mispronounces words (and often misuses or misspells these same, and other, words) in ways that immediately flag her as ignorant in our work area/department. What to do?

I dislike any perception that our team is not smart or skilled; and I feel like her usage causes others to think we're less than we should be. I've seen others raise their eyebrows/roll their eyes when she does this. These are words that anyone who works in our area should definitely know, and know how to pronounce. None of them are odd or esoteric or anything like that.

She is also very touchy and prone to hair-trigger offended-ness. She's been here a LONG time and I have not. Not sure what to do, if anything. Has anyone successfully handled this? Or should I just get over it and mind my own beeswax?
posted by I_Love_Bananas to Society & Culture (39 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I wouldn't touch this with a ten foot pole. If her manager doesn't care enough to do it, then her manager is okay with it, and you might as well be too.

Plus, frankly, this could easily be a disability issue that you definitely don't want to call attention to.
posted by Etrigan at 1:04 PM on August 30, 2018 [40 favorites]

If your coworker is perceived as being thin-skinned, correcting her pronunciation will do little to elevate the perceived skill of your team.
posted by JamesBay at 1:05 PM on August 30, 2018 [7 favorites]

Her mistakes do not say anything about your own level of intelligence. Anyone judging your entire team for the actions of a single person is the one in the wrong here. If she was open to correction, then it would be nice to offer her help very rarely and only when it is important rather than get on her for every mistake. As it is, she won't accept your help and I think you need to accept that.
posted by soelo at 1:06 PM on August 30, 2018 [5 favorites]

Nope, sorry, correction only works on the corrigible. About the only thing you can do is use correct pronunciation and spelling yourself. Hopefully they catch on at some point.
posted by Aleyn at 1:10 PM on August 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

I dislike any perception that our team is not smart or skilled;

When you can offer evidence that this perception exists you might get more useful advice about how to deal with it. So far, all we have is that there is eye-rolling about your colleague's behavior.

What are people actually saying about the team as a whole?
posted by John Borrowman at 1:12 PM on August 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

I agree that you shouldn't do anything in this particular instance.

However, I was a little unhappy when I found out a coworker never said anything about a word I was pronouncing incorrectly. It's pretty easy to repeat the word correctly in the same conversation, which will lead people who care to either ask or look it up.
posted by FencingGal at 1:14 PM on August 30, 2018 [6 favorites]

She is also very touchy and prone to hair-trigger offended-ness. She's been here a LONG time and I have not.

DEFINITELY get over it. Losing battle.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 1:17 PM on August 30, 2018 [31 favorites]

If she has been there a long time there is a zero percent chance this has not been brought to her attention and she is still doing it at this point maybe even out of spite so that doesn’t sound like something you should stick your head out for.
posted by griphus at 1:22 PM on August 30, 2018 [4 favorites]

This is not worth the inevitable drama that will come from speaking up. That's why nobody does it.
posted by jenfullmoon at 1:26 PM on August 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

I have definitely tried the repeat words back to the offending pronouncer before and see if they get it - I don't think it works!

I used to work at a place with "corps" in its name. Just shocking how large the minority of people who would pronounce it "corpse" always was, regardless of the fact that the word was in our fricking name and was spoken correctly a thousand times daily.

I'd just let it go.
posted by RajahKing at 1:26 PM on August 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

I'm a pedantic, annoying know-it-all, and I can tell you that there is really no way to correct someone's spelling or pronunciation that doesn't make you look like a dick. If you aren't this person's direct supervisor, (and I think you would have mentioned it if you were) there's no way to do this without them getting offended. And you already know that they are easily offended!

Excluding some specific line of work you could be in, it's hard for me to see how this would really reflect poorly on you or the rest of your team. Being a bad speller or mispronouncing words isn't necessarily a sign of low intelligence, and again, even if it was, it doesn't have anything to do with you. If your boss apparently doesn't care, there's nothing you can do. I get that it's annoying though.
posted by cakelite at 1:27 PM on August 30, 2018 [11 favorites]

Yeah, this is a "let sleeping dogs lie" kind of situation. Unless she is in a role where she has to give formal presentations to shareholders or people outside the company, I really wouldn't worry about it. Even so - she's already been there a long time so nobody else thinks it's a big enough issue.
posted by acidnova at 1:27 PM on August 30, 2018

It's pretty easy to repeat the word correctly in the same conversation

This is what I would try for when possible, but not in any overt or obvious way. Not every time either if this is just an ongoing constant issue. But definitely don't explicitly tell her she's mispronouncing something; there's no upshot for you here.
posted by JenMarie at 1:27 PM on August 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

Some people simply don't express themselves well verbally, and it has no bearing on their intelligence or ability to do their job. You probably know that (considering you said you don't want OTHERS to think she's "not smart"), but consider this is why she may be defensive, and let a little empathy direct your actions, whatever they may be.
posted by wellifyouinsist at 1:28 PM on August 30, 2018 [5 favorites]

Not to join the pile on, but to present a flipside point of view... I work in science, with a lot of people whose first language isn't English. Two or three times I have seen one of my colleagues make some pronunciation or grammar error, and a third person (ALWAYS a non-scientist) sort of roll their eyes and direct all their conversation to me (American white woman.) Each time, I was junior to the colleague making the errors -- junior in position, in education, in knowledge. I would do my best to redirect them to the person they really needed to be talking to... And laugh later with my colleague about what a superficial idiot they were.

Even among native English speakers, mispronouncing words but using them correctly, just means you read more than you talk. That's a bad thing?
posted by pH Indicating Socks at 1:49 PM on August 30, 2018 [27 favorites]

I was totally expecting this question to be "I want to help my coworker shine, how can I point her towards the correct spellings and pronunciations of these words?"

Well-adjusted folk don't assume someone is dumb because they misspell or mispronounce. I know some people who are prone to these errors, and my reaction usually ranges somewhere between (a) thinking it's a little quirk of theirs, like that guy I knew who always mispronounced 'scarcity' and (b) passively wondering if they might have dyslexia and/or a speech impediment.

My take is that you are insecure -- hence why you are hypervigilant to anything that might reflect poorly on you or your team -- and that is causing you to magnify this issue in your mind. Work on that, not on shaming someone who may very well have a disability you don't know about. Your disgust at her mispronunciations says a lot more about your (lack of) empathy than about her intelligence.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 1:53 PM on August 30, 2018 [23 favorites]

One of the absolute crucial things for a good team to function well and hence make a great impression on others is that the co-workers are loyal to each other. If someone (so: from outside the team??) rolls his/her eyes about stuff like this and no other team member tries to stop that behavior, that's actually very much not ok.
And inside the team? Well, the impuls to "fremdschämen" (to feel embarrassment for someone else's actions) is your problem and doesn't require her to change anything.

There also seems to be some kind of cosmic law that when you finally speak up and correct a mistake, the next blooper will happen to you. At least that's what tends to happen to me when I'm trying to be smart
posted by Namlit at 2:10 PM on August 30, 2018 [5 favorites]

I disagree with the consensus that seems to be forming. It's reasonable for you want her to pronounce and spell domain specific words correctly. You are on a team together and her performance reflects on you.

I also think it's reasonable to expect an expert in their field to know the language associated with that field; I'm a mathematician so I feel this especially acutely, but I think it should apply generally.

If I were you I would absolutely bring it up. I would frame it as a question: am I wrong about this? Because I was surprised to hear you say it that way. The advantage is, on the off-chance you are actually wrong, you still are acting gracefully.
posted by dbx at 2:14 PM on August 30, 2018 [9 favorites]

Nope nope nope, you are not in a position to do this, nope.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 2:25 PM on August 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

I agree with dbx, and their suggestion is exactly how I handle something like this - 'oh, I noticed you said 'corpse' - I've always thought it was 'core', but maybe I was wrong?' If she's even remotely interested in saying it correctly, she'll find out for herself. If she's not, well, you tried.
posted by widdershins at 2:28 PM on August 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

Your coworker should use language relevant to her profession and the work that she does correctly. Not correcting her because of the theoretical possibility that she might have a disability is condescending. However, it is not necessarily your responsibility to fix this, and it would be kinder not to correct her in the moment, in front of other people, even if you try to do it in a subtle way (which can come off as just passive-aggressive).

Bring it to the attention of whoever supervises/leads your team. Once you've done that, it's their problem, and you can stop worrying about it.
posted by prize bull octorok at 2:30 PM on August 30, 2018 [9 favorites]

I actually see this as a management issue. She's being openly maligned in the workplace and you have repeatedly noticed her "quirks" which undermine your team's reputation.

In the interest of *her* reputation as much as the team's, I'd bring it to management as a work-related concern. Whether or not she has a disability is irrelevant when you consider that your concerns are professional in nature. If I were a manager, I'd absolutely want to know that this is going on. If it's a disability, by law I couldn't disclose that to you, but I could discuss the issue with her. If it's above your pay grade to deal with these kinds of issues, then let management handle it.

If you do choose to approach her, perhaps ask the question when you're well out of earshot of other people. Her defensiveness could be because people become annoyed and call her out in front of others, effectively shaming her for what could be something she cannot help.
posted by onecircleaday at 2:37 PM on August 30, 2018 [4 favorites]

I got fired from a job for pointing out that Pernod is spelled that way, not Pernot. I'd only been there three days. I guess chef didn't like being corrected at pre-shift meeting. So I'd say no, don't do anything, unless you can take this person out for a beer or something and offer up the advice as a pal, not a co-worker.
posted by vrakatar at 2:42 PM on August 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

I agree that this kind of thing does reflect poorly on the team. But it's not about her intelligence; it's about putting in the effort to get details right. Repeating errors like this is unprofessional.
posted by ktkt at 3:06 PM on August 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

Hit post too soon. Still, there is not a great way for OP to address this; that falls on their manager.
posted by ktkt at 3:07 PM on August 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

Honestly, your preoccupation with your co-worker’s pronunciation says a lot more about your intelligence and maturity than it does about hers.

I have worked in companies that had abysmal English (and where English was still the main/sole method of communication internally and externally), and companies where everyone communicated in impeccable, precise English.

Anecdotally - within the company with the overall worst command of English (not even the company name was grammatical), I’m pretty sure my colleagues knew their own English wasn’t the greatest. But their other talents more than made up for their grammar mistakes and mispronunciation - they had great business instincts, tenacity, diligence - and they were very knowledgeable as to how our industry worked. Yes, maybe a few other people/potential partners may have thought our company was less capable because of grammatical mistakes or mispronunciations. (I remember talking to a wouldbe partner - a white woman - who sniggered to my face when she heard the company name.)

But you know what? A truly intelligent and astute person would know that weird English is only a very small part of the equation when sizing up a colleague or potential partner. That company rose to become a market leader in its industry; it’s expanded very rapidly and is still thriving - still with its ungrammatical name.

Conversely, I’ve been in companies where everyone was very “academic”, with perfect English and a penchant for accurate language. (I myself tend to fall more into this category - bad grammar, imprecise word choice, incorrect spelling etc really annoy me internally - I reflexively cringe when I hear/read this stuff.) I’ve seen teams and companies flop or perform suboptimally despite (or because of*) their great English and many academic qualifications.

Basically, it’s nice to have nice English, but it can be more useful to know how to use the English you have (no matter how limited), and to have the sense to know not to judge others based on English technicalities.

*Impeccable spelling, pronunciation, word usage and grammar do not necessarily imply clear and effective communication. (E.g. Sometimes too many words, lengthy sentences, overly-elaborate word choice etc confuse the reader and fail to convey the main point of the writer/speaker clearly.)
posted by aielen at 3:15 PM on August 30, 2018 [4 favorites]

About the only time I would even consider correcting a coworker's pronunciation of terms related to our business would be if we were imminently facing a customer meeting where I knew that pronunciation could get us in trouble. Like: we're driving to the customer and it's either say something or blow it. In that case it may be worth the risk of the blowback. May.

That's a pretty specific scenario though, and since it's probably not the case that you're posting this on the way to a client site ;) ... yeah, I'm seconding the "talk to manager if you must, past that it's out of your hands" responses.
posted by -1 at 3:17 PM on August 30, 2018

One of the smartest people I know is dyslectic and sometimes mispronounces words they have only read, not heard. They have been in top management for their entire working life, and I don't think that would have happened if people had issues with their pronunciation.
Relax. It's not your problem.
posted by mumimor at 3:33 PM on August 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

If your co-worker has been there a long time, the eye rolling may just be good-natured "that's how she is" and not judgement. It sounds like this isn't creating confusion, I'd let it be.
posted by momus_window at 3:50 PM on August 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

I work in communications, and have to vet people's comms every day. The only time when it's okay to correct someone is a) when they ask you to, and b) when it's your responsibility to (and it really matters, and you know what? It rarely ever matters).

Correcting someone's verbal pronunciation is basically never okay. Because of my field, I have to work with people that delight in proclaiming themselves "Grammar" (or pronunciation) nazis. It's insufferable, for all concerned.

Besides, who pronounces "gif" with a soft g, for example? Pronunciation is not a big deal.
posted by smoke at 4:06 PM on August 30, 2018 [3 favorites]

People hate being corrected. Hate it.

(Personally, I'd MUCH rather be corrected by a knowledgeable and non-judgy friend than continue to mispronounce something but I'm in a -tiny- minority of people who feel this way. Your colleague is 99.9999% likely to not be in this club. And anyway you aren't her friend.)

Leave it. You have much more to lose than to gain by addressing it. "People will forget your words but they'll never forget the way you made them feel."
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:20 PM on August 30, 2018 [3 favorites]

Ok, so I am a librarian. And I have worked with people who were librarians much longer than I have been, who were not dumb, who were good at their jobs and sometimes even sticklers for detail - and yet if asked what they did, they would say "I'm a lie-berry-an". They worked at the "lie-berry". Yup. For real.

I don't know. On the one hand, that kind of stuff irks me as much as it amuses me, but the older I get the more the amusement takes over. I'm sure I've made similar gaffes, unaware, as well as the ones I absolutely know I've gotten wrong due to reading avidly and coming across words I have never heard said aloud. (Like anti-queue instead of anteek when I was about 7, and dooshy instead of dutchy just last year. Ok that one I honestly thought was French. I was wrong.)

Also, word pronunciation varies, even within the individual. I mean, I say "caysh" instead of "cash" (much to my brother's amused ridicule) because that is how "cache" is pronounced where I live. And yet, even though everyone around me says "dahta", I have never lost the habit of saying "dayta". I might eat nyocki with tomahto and ore-ih-GONE-oh, instead of noaki with tomayto and o-REG-ah-no, but apparently I cannot stop saying dayta. I blame ST:NG.
posted by Athanassiel at 9:35 PM on August 30, 2018 [3 favorites]

Can IT hook her up with spellcheck for her email and word processing? Maybe she'd accept correction from a machine. One of the sneaky things I do is correct spellings in emails before I forward them or reply all.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 9:53 PM on August 30, 2018

Unless you’re someone’s manager, their work does not reflect on you and you should not try to correct it. It will likely not go well. Does she write “anonymous” things with errors that go out to the wider community that you’re afraid people will think you did? Like newsletters or department emails? If so, talk to your manager about your concerns and suggest a review process for ALL communications that go out. This is something I had to do at one job. But her own written work that everyone can tell is hers? Nah. That’s not reflecting on you at all.

As far as her speech goes: I say hands off. Verbal language is a part of people’s culture, family, and regional history. What you consider a wrong pronunciation may be how her family said it and a correction could be seen as a repudiation of that. If she can hear, she can likely tell she’s saying some things differently than others. She just doesn’t think that’s the bad thing that you do. And since the words are coming out of her mouth, no one will be mistaking them for yours. No one is thinking any less of you for working near her.
posted by greermahoney at 10:34 PM on August 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

One of the smartest people I know is dyslectic

So I'm all like "ha ha, mumimor wrote 'dyslectic' instead of 'dyslexic' because they are teh funneh" and I go look it up and whaddaya know? It's a recognized alternative spelling.

People's English sucks, but that's mostly because English sucks. Let it go.
posted by flabdablet at 6:07 AM on August 31, 2018 [2 favorites]

I dunno...if I had a doctor who referred to a procedure as a “colonostopy” or “intrubation” I would likely lose a lot of confidence in their abilities. Words matter.
posted by tristeza at 8:54 AM on August 31, 2018 [4 favorites]

I have a dear friend who takes perverse pleasure in correcting my pronounciation or grammar at every fucking opportunity. In fact I often say things wrong on purpose just to mess wth her now.

Occasionally I get annoyed and decide to correct her and she reacts as if I slapped her. Let this go, no good can come of it. People generally don’t take this kind of correction as well as we wish they would.
posted by RichardHenryYarbo at 1:39 PM on August 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

Data point: a good friend of mine, I'll call her Helen, has specific learning difficulties that relate to reading and writing. A mutual friend gave her son a name that comes from a different language, and is hence unfamiliar to Helen and me. Helen pronounces the name wrong every single time, and because the name belongs to a minority ethnicity, it felt very disrespectful to me. Thinking that Helen had been confused by only reading the name, I raised it with her and sounded out both of the two straightforward syllables - she repeated them back to me correctly, but continues to mispronounce the name every. single. time. Helen is a kind and very thoughtful person, so I'm confident she's not doing this deliberately or even carelessly - her brain just doesn't work the same way mine does about pronunciation. Hassling her about it would only make both of us unhappy, so I don't. Additionally, it sounds like you already know this co-worker is a bit prickly, so I can't see any good that can come out if it.
posted by Cheese Monster at 1:17 AM on September 1, 2018

My co-worker regularly mispronounces words

And you boldly split infinitives; and frankly that semi-colon placement is questionable.

That your chosen 'best answers' go against an overwhelming consensus and conveniently align with your starting position suggests you came here looking for a pat on the back, not honest feedback, but here's some anyway:

Mispronunciation and misspelling of words is not a sign of another person's ignorance. Rather, your focus on these issues (and your insistence that they're somehow all about you) is a sign of your privilege. Use it wisely. Punching down is not the way to do that.
posted by some little punk in a rocket at 4:57 PM on September 3, 2018 [3 favorites]

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