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Better Watch your Ts and Ds, too

One of the reasons I started this blog was to share the discussions I have been enjoying with Good Word readers who write in questions and comments. Not long ago Jane Quein wrote, “Another often misspelled word or mispronounced word is congratulations. Many people spell it congradulations. I’ve seen it spelled this way on many outdoor signs. Misspelled words drive me crazy!”

Me, too, though I am encouraged by the growing interest in spelling that I mentioned in my first blog, Scripps-Howard Spelling Bee (2006). The misspelling, of course, is wrong. However, since we congratulate graduates when they graduate, it is easy to confuse the spelling of the two—especially in the spring!

T is, in fact, pronounced like a D in a wide range of English words, like writer, plotting, and metal. These two consonants are identical except for the fact when we pronounce D, we vibrate our vocal cords but not when we pronounce T. (Actually, we also toss out a puff of air with the T but that is a moot issue here.)

Now all vowels in English are voiced. You cannot pronounce a vowel without vibrating your vocal cords. This means that when a voiceless T occurs between vowels, we have to rev up our vocal cords, quickly shut them down for the split second it takes to pronounce T, then rev them up for the next vowel. That is a lot of double-clutching in the throat. Most English speakers do not bother, which means the vowels and the T are all voiced but voicing the T makes it a D.

That brings us to congrATUlate. It is one of those words with T between two vowels. So it is perfectly normal to pronounce this word with a D sound replacing the T. This same phenomenon is audible in words like writer and rider, plotting and plodding, medal and metal (and mettle), budding and butting. Say, “She is a plodding writer” to someone then ask them what “she” does–write or ride? How does “she” do it–easily or trudgingly?

All languages have regular sound shifts like this one and it should cause problems with spelling. After all, we have learned to live with a big disjoint between sound and spelling. It does help, though, to know that T becomes D between vowels in English, so when you hear a D between vowels, we need to make a check of visual memory make sure of the spelling.

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