Patricia T. O’Conner

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Word maven Patricia T. O'Conner answers your questions about the English language. Today she's focusing on pronunciation.

Call us at 212-433-9692, or leave a comment below.

Patricia T. O’Conner’s Grammarphobia website


Patricia T. O'Conner

Comments [68]

Ro from SoHo

Regarding the kitchen in a home as being the only designated space without being defined as a 'room': possibly this is because the 'kitchen' was not attached in any way to the rest of the house/home. In early European homes the rooves of houses were made of flammable material: moss, woven straw etc. (Daub and wattle.) Fire spreading beyond the fire place to the rest of the house was clearly a danger. So the kitchen was a designated space quite far from the main house. It wasn't until houses were constructed of stone, slate or brick THROUGHOUT, that the kitchen was 'brought in from the cold' so to speak!

Could this possibly be the reason that kitchen was not defined as a 'room' because it was a building all on it's own?

Apr. 18 2009 02:54 PM
Renee Bash from New York City

Re: there being no gender distinction in the word "doctor" because women only recently became doctors, not so. Women have a long tradition as doctors, being the original healers, before being shunted aside by men as technology became "high" along with pay. In my childhood, such women were referred to as "a WOMAN doctor." Likewise, nurses who are men are invariably referred to as "a male nurse." ludicrous as it may be to refer to a "he" as a "male". There seems to be a need to segregate professions by gender, to let it be known everyone is fulfilling their proper role.

Apr. 15 2009 02:38 PM
Ash in Manhattan from Manhattan

I like gender neutral nouns and feel that genderized nouns (I just made up "genderized") are essentially without any useful merit and only reflect the biases of the groups that create them.

Any occupational noun [e.g., doctor (not medicine man), nurse (not midwife), actor, pilot, president] should be inherently gender neutral. If there is any question about the gender or sex of the person being described by the noun, the adjectives 'male' and 'female' can be added for clarity.

Not 'woman' or 'man', which are nouns, not adjectives and do not accommodate non-adult women or men. Nor, 'lady' or 'gentleman', which is a specific kind of woman or man [the husband of the female President of the USA on "24" is called, rather amusingly in my view, the "First Gentleman" -- reflecting the established use of "First Lady" to describe the wife of the President of the USA.].

As a French student, I constantly lament the fact that the French have given nouns and pronouns (and all that depend on them grammatically) gender. I can never remember the gender of inanimate objects since there is no logical way to do so.

I was rather surprised by the views of the female lawyer who phoned the show. But, perhaps I should not have been.

Apr. 15 2009 02:31 PM
steve miller from scarsdale

doctress is a word

Apr. 15 2009 02:14 PM
al oof from brooklyn

michele, as i said, it might also be helpful to have a way of adding 'italian' or 'black' or 'left-handed' into a profession word, but we don't do that. what is being implied when we say that it's important to know the gender of a person we are talking about? and what does it say that when there is a mixed-gender group of people, we use the plural of the word we are, in singular, using for males? because if i say 'that bar is full of actors' i don't think people will assume i mean there aren't any female actors. but if i say 'that bar is full of actresses', you would assume there aren't male actors.

it's actually pretty rare that you need to know, linguistically, whether a person is a man or a woman. you'd be surprised. it's sexism that makes us 'need to know', becuase we have such different expectations of men and women, we don't know which set of standards to judge the genderless person by. that's why it bugs us so much when we don't know someone's gender.

Apr. 15 2009 02:13 PM
Jim from Brooklyn

Simple, "monopoly": One controls many.

Apr. 15 2009 02:09 PM
BC from Flushing

Anyone with some familiarity with French and with debates in France over "politically correct" and non-sexist language will find this passionate debate over "gender neutral" terms especially absurd and convoluted. In France, the "progressive", allegedly non-sexist or pro-feminist strategy is to create (if they don't already exist) "feminized" versions of nouns for occupations. The French equivalents of "lawyeress" or "doctoress" or what have you are considered a sign of progress in social equality, rather than an at best weird or quaint throwback.
I've found it amusing, when listening to French public radio, to hear people of older generations bemoan the insistence of some younger people that they use these feminine forms. Transfered to the US, the argument would be exactly reversed!

Which is a long way of saying, everyone should chill about this stuff, recognize that it's about neither logic or justice, but merely a matter of convention, and people have a right to use what they like, and a responsibility to listen with a generous ear, and not assume sexist malice, or presume to "correct" the other person, whichever side of the issue they're on.

Apr. 15 2009 02:07 PM
Lance from Manhattan

Michael[54], why is it that we (English-speakers and Romance-language speakers) feel that way?

Not all languages require that he and she be distinguished.
Take a look at this wikipedia article, for instance.

Apr. 15 2009 02:07 PM
Mike from Inwood

Jim from Brooklyn states: "What idiot created this phrase that makes my life so miserable?"

Perhaps an idiot concocted the phrase, but you make your life miserable.

Apr. 15 2009 02:04 PM
Mike from Inwood

Often women speak of how the language contains sexism that is anti-female, but consider 'misogynist' an aversion or hostility towards women and 'misanthrope' an aversion or hostility toward humanity. There is a word to describe negative attitudes toward women but one cannot speak succinctly about hostility to men.

Apr. 15 2009 02:03 PM
Phyllis from NYC

Thank you Jim from Brooklyn, you are so right.

Apr. 15 2009 02:01 PM
Michele Crawford

Isn't it more efficient to have a feminine and masculine version of a word so you don't have to add "female" actor etc? Especially if the sex of the person you are referring to is important to what you are saying?

Apr. 15 2009 02:00 PM
Jim from Brooklyn

I am driven absolutley crazy when talking-heads constsntly use the most annoying phrase "going forward". Good or bad, I automatically despise the person speaking when these two words spill out of their mouths. What idiot created this phrase that makes my life so miserable?

Apr. 15 2009 01:58 PM
Paul Rosenthal from Manhattan

While there is no female words for doctor in English, it does exist in other languages. Notably "dotoressa" and "professoressa" in Italian

Apr. 15 2009 01:58 PM
MichaelB from Morningside Heights

Why have gender pronouns? Why he and she, his and hers?

Because in reality, when someone is referenced to us, one of the first things we want to know to set the person in our minds is the gender/sex of the person in question.

Apr. 15 2009 01:57 PM
james from caroll gardens

Regarding the discussion of nouns ending in -ess...I think it's a generational thing. The people that want to hold onto the ending tend to be older and may want to keep it because they're used to it. It's definitely moving out of the language and is no longer necessary.
BTW, my favorite one is "giantess."

Apr. 15 2009 01:57 PM
jean from manhattan

What really annoys me: "male" and "female" restrooms ("bathrooms").

Apr. 15 2009 01:56 PM
Jane from Brooklyn

I'm listening to this conversation about gender neutral terms for professions. I am a professor and a woman, and I've been referred to as a "lady professor" on a number of occasions, which signifies that the speaker is not comfortable with the idea that women can be professors!

Apr. 15 2009 01:56 PM
Brianne from Manhattan

Look at Spanish and other romantic languages, even objects have a sex (or gender) -- so do
colors (rosa - pink -female; blanco - white -male)

Apr. 15 2009 01:56 PM
al oof from brooklyn

karen from winchester - it's called respecting dialect difference. it's not 'bad grammar'. it is how people grow up speaking. the differences you're seeing now is that people from different socio-economic groups are allowed to get educations, and in general, people are acknowledging that dialect differences exist and that the 'standards' ascribed a century ago were simply a forced dialect, that dialect based on the ways that the richest and whitest people in the united states already spoke (as in they didn't have to learn to speak 'correctly' it's just their natural dialect. just another way of getting an edge on the general population.)

Apr. 15 2009 01:55 PM
Lance from Manhattan

I disagree with the caller (the retired attorney) in that "actor" CAN (today) be a gender-neutral term.

Perhaps this is a generational difference between the caller and others such as myself.

Apr. 15 2009 01:55 PM
Michelle from Brooklyn

I look forward to the day when the term "sex" (referring to one's biological make up) does not refer solely to "Male" and "Female" but also branches out to include those persons who fall somewhere in the middle, such as those with a chromosomal make up that is not XX or XY but rather can be XXY or XXXY and are classified as Intersex. (such births occur in about 1 in 2000, more often than many other conditions, such as muscular dystrophy)

Apr. 15 2009 01:54 PM
Steve from Port Washington, NY

Regarding the phrase to "fire" someone. I once heard that if a person was being ostracized in a community - others in the community would burn down their house, driving them out of the community.

Will this fly Orville?

Apr. 15 2009 01:53 PM
Karen from Westchester

maybe I just work (and shop) in an environment where the spoken English is NOT characteristic of the population at large, but the grammar I hear these days is appalling and even reaches into media newscasters or talk show hosts. A tiny portion of the population cares about the discussion on this show, while the English at large is coming apart at the seams. "He had went" instead of "he had gone" or "more better" is now being spoken by Americans with 4 year college degrees.

Apr. 15 2009 01:50 PM
John Hahn from Glen Rock NJ

A vase (as in Face) is if you break it.
It is a Vase (V OZ) if they break it.
Under $75 vase (as in face)
Over $75 Vase (V oz)

Apr. 15 2009 01:50 PM
Michael from East Village

I agree that language is important in creating gender equality but there are a couple of exceptions when the old way might be better:

Apr. 15 2009 01:50 PM
Peter from Manhattan


Mono = "one"

poly = "many"

what gives???

Apr. 15 2009 01:49 PM
David from Manhattan

I have a question about British guests.

Sometimes I hear the host say, "And thank you for being on the show", and the guest simply replies, "Ok. Bye."

This seems very rude to me, is it less rude in Britain?


Apr. 15 2009 01:49 PM
Phyllis from NYC

Why would Leonard say people get less upset about Abu Ghraib than they do about language? That is so malicious of him. The implication is not flattering.

Apr. 15 2009 01:49 PM
MichaelB from Morningside Heights

Ellie [32], "irregardless" is incorrect; no such word. There is irrespective.

For fun, I truly like to mangle regardless with "disirregardless."

Apr. 15 2009 01:49 PM
Vanessa from Brooklyn

I don't like it when someone says "woman doctor" or "woman lawyer." If gender needs to be mentioned, shouldn't it be "female lawyer?"

Apr. 15 2009 01:49 PM
Kevin from Union City, NJ

colonel (kʉr′nəl)... where did the r come from???

Apr. 15 2009 01:49 PM
David from Manhattan

I have a question on the use of "this" and "next" to refer to days of the week.

Is "next Friday" tomorrow, or the Friday of next week?

Which days are "next Tuesday" and "this Tuesday"?
(today is Thursday)


Apr. 15 2009 01:48 PM
Mark from Elmhurst

One way to get some clarity on the sex gender question is to consider what it does not suggest. For example: we may have sex with another person or many, but we do not have "gender" with anyone.

Apr. 15 2009 01:46 PM
Lance from Manhattan

In response to Gary (on the air):

I'd like us to start using gender-neutral pronouns. Why must a person's gender/sex be referenced in any statement about them, even when gender is completely irrelevant to the topic being discussed? Not all languages demand gendered pronouns.

Apr. 15 2009 01:46 PM
al oof from brooklyn

gary is crazy. we can say female actors just like we can say black actors.

Apr. 15 2009 01:45 PM
ellie from Washington Heights

People say "supposably" instead of "supposedly" even the erudite journalists on NPR, what's up with that?
Also, irregardless, isn't this redundant? (Though indeed fun to say?)

Apr. 15 2009 01:44 PM
Dave Ruby from Westchester

Perhaps the Mr. Paterson and the legislature might easier approve a "gender-neutral" marriage law instead of a "same-sex" marriage.

Apr. 15 2009 01:43 PM
Pat from Riverside Ct

To get the sack: The phrase was current in 17th Century France and the probable explanation of the term is that workmen carried their implements in a bag or sack (French sac) and when discharged took up their bag of tolls and departed to seek a job elsewhere.

Ref: Brewers Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.

Apr. 15 2009 01:42 PM
Lance from Manhattan

Joseph Cardinal Bernadin
Alfred Lord Tennyson

Apr. 15 2009 01:41 PM
Jane Davenport from Manhattan

About kitchen: in German, the word is Kuche, which means cooking. I think the word kitchen may come directly from that.

Apr. 15 2009 01:40 PM
Laurence from Manhattan

Is there any hope of stopping the emergence of the term "nother" as in "a whole nother thing"?

Apr. 15 2009 01:40 PM
steve miller from scarsdale

I suggest without actually knowing this that Cardinal is actually added to the person's name and not just a title

Apr. 15 2009 01:40 PM
Vanessa from Brooklyn

I'm so glad you are discussing the difference between sex and gender. I have long been troubled by this. I wonder why we see most commonly "male gender" and "female sex". I think this is because females are thought from the male view as the sex objects.

Apr. 15 2009 01:40 PM
Julia Paterson

"Sack" How about this word coming from a medieval route -- as in "Sack of Rome?"

Apr. 15 2009 01:38 PM
Alex from NYC

During Leonard's April Fools show, he used the expression "A whole 'nother thing". I'm sure he would play this off as if it were part of the joke, but I think he's slipping.

Apr. 15 2009 01:36 PM
K from New York


I was wondering about the word draconian and why it is being so overused. Specifically, the MTA is calling the possible cutbacks draconian, which word I had always understood to be more about cruel and severe punishment. I am not sure how that applies here.

Apr. 15 2009 01:35 PM
Tricia from Manhattan

I think you missed a key point on the word gender - gender is cultural identity where sex biological. Think transgender.

Apr. 15 2009 01:35 PM
Blaney from Manhattan

Gender can refer to the social construct and lived gender identity. It's useful to have a way to refer to the concept of gender identity separately from the biomedical concept of sex.

Apr. 15 2009 01:35 PM
MichaelB from Morningside Heights

To bk [2]: "Gay" used to be a synomym for happy and carefree, as in "a gay, old time."

It somehow transmuted into sexual politics.

Apr. 15 2009 01:34 PM
James from Brooklyn

I like how Ginsburg felt she needed to change the language to "gender" but then says it's because males on the court would get distracted. But they aren't the ones who felt uncomfortable with it. Seems like Ginsburg was the one who was distracted.

Apr. 15 2009 01:34 PM
Elizabeth from Bergen County

When did "ironic" come to replace the word "sarcastic", and is that a legitimate use of the word?

Thank you.

Apr. 15 2009 01:33 PM
ben siegel from nyc

Not a trivial distinction.

Sex: physical/biologoical categories

Gender: socially inscribed categories of male/female

Significant difference because it calls into question the social construction of gender.

Apr. 15 2009 01:33 PM
al oof from brooklyn

gender only equals prudish if you think that saying 'sex' denotes sexual stuffs. i think saying 'rooster' is prudish, because you are avoiding saying the older word, 'cock'.

Apr. 15 2009 01:33 PM
Jerry from Brooklyn

It's my understanding that sex refers to your biological state and gender refers to whether you identify as a man or a woman. So, a biological male who identifies/lives as a woman would have the male sex and female gender.

Apr. 15 2009 01:31 PM
Elizabeth from Bergen County

When did the word "ironic" come to replace the word "sarcastic", and is that a legitimate use of the word?

Thank you.

Apr. 15 2009 01:30 PM
al oof from brooklyn

it's probably worth patricia's time to look into queer theory enough to see how terms like sex and gender affect trans* people.

Apr. 15 2009 01:30 PM
Dylan from Greenpoint

The origins of the term "seachange". Is this related to rapid weather changes when sailing?

Apr. 15 2009 01:30 PM
Andy from Brooklyn

Is there a pronunciation difference between a plural and a plural's possessive? Eg, how are the following pronounced


Should the last two sound different?

Apr. 15 2009 01:29 PM
Steve (the other one) from Manhattan

Britain - organise; United States: organize. What's the origin of the "S" "Z" thing? Thanks.

Apr. 15 2009 01:29 PM
Pam, MD from NY

Leonard has mentioned this topic; so here is my educated understanding:

'Gender' is social--i.e.-defined by one's identity/sex-ROLE;
'sex' is biological--i.e.-defined by one's sex-organs.

Apr. 15 2009 01:09 PM
bill from manhattan

Barack and Hillary constantly say the word 'a' as a long 'a' sound and not like 'uh'. I find this a bit pretentious and unnatural and I think they do this to sound more scholarly. I know that either are correct but what's the history of the spoken 'a'? Have both always been in use?

Apr. 15 2009 01:07 PM
sr from NJ

which is the correct way to pronounce 'roof' or 'room' etc.
I lengthen the sound of the 'oo' but i have been corrected by some of my professors and been asked to shorted the sound to some thing similar to a dog says, 'ruff ruff', my 'rumm' is small etc please explain

Apr. 15 2009 12:42 PM
Elie Walters from New York City

I can't believe I'm going to confess this on Public Radio, but my guilty pleasure is watching America's Next Top Model. One of the best parts is spotting all the grammatical errors in the catch phrases they use. Not the general chit chat between models, but the speeches Tyra repeats every week. When they are picking models to continue on in the show Tyra says "You're still in the running towards becoming America's Next Top Model". "Towards"?! In the Australian and British version of the show they just don't say that. Please tell me if this is really wrong, or just sounds bad. (and please keep don't mention my name) Thank you

Apr. 15 2009 12:11 PM
Mark from Mount Vernon

I've noticed on radio and television (including WNYC newscasts) that finance, financial and financier now begin with FY.
Bernie Madoff was called a FY-nan-seer.
When did fih-NANCE leaves us?

Apr. 15 2009 11:33 AM
Gina from Crown Heights

Is listening to wNYC addictive or addicting? Are both correct or is one more correct than the other?

Apr. 15 2009 11:21 AM
bk from nyc

what is the story with "gay?" I always thought it meant homosexual - male & female. It is often used in that inclusive way. but now I often hear "gay & lesbian." isn't this redundant?

Apr. 15 2009 10:40 AM
Joe Adams from Hillsdale, Bergen County, NJ

As the Kentucky Derby draws near, I thought of the several English expressions referring to horses. "Horse sense" is an oxymoron since the horse is a stupid animal compared to the dog, cat or rat. "Pack of wild horses" refers to a strong force. Horsing around means silly behavior. "Put out to pasture" is equivalent to involuntary retirement. "That's a horse of another color." is the equivalent of "You're comparing apples to oranges."
An strong insult to someone's intelligence, perhaps unmentionable on the air, is "You're a horse's ass." Finally there is the song to indicate some one is well past his prime, "The old grey mare, she ain't what she used to be."

Apr. 15 2009 08:05 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Get the WNYC Morning Brief in your inbox.
We'll send you our top 5 stories every day, plus breaking news and weather.