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Stressing about emphasis


Sometimes it’s tricky to know if you are putting the right emPHASis on the right SylLAble. Even Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan has had her doubts when it comes to what syllable to stress and when.

“I, for much of my life, at least for as long as I've been using this word, have said “AFFluent.” But, at the university, I will go to talks and talk to colleagues and sometimes they will say “affLOOent,” Curzan says. 

“That makes me self-conscious and makes me think, ‘hmmm, have I been saying this word wrong for years and years and no one's told me?'”

But Curzan’s usual standby research tools did not prove as helpful as they had in the past. The American Heritage Dictionary lists both pronunciations, and without a usage note to boot. So she tried the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage.

“There they say, historically, the pronunciation with the stress on the second syllable has been criticized. The idea is that the stress should be on the first syllable – ‘AFFluent.’ One of the arguments apparently is that if you put the stress on the first syllable, you won't get it confused with the word effluent.”

And affluent and effluent are not words you want to mix up.

“They both are related to flowing,” Curzan explains. “So affluent comes into English in the 15th century and it goes back to Latin and it means overflowing or abundant.”

Affluent with an “a” has been used to describe everything from goodness to grace to hair. But it’s primary usage today is all about the money; affluent neighborhoods, affluent families, affluent schools, and the list goes on.

Effluent with an “e” has a completely different meaning.

“Effluent is also about flowing. In this case, flowing out. The first syllable of that comes from ex as in out, also goes back to Latin,” Curzan says. “And effluent is now usually used as a noun for the waste that is discharged from a plant, an industrial plant, or what flows out of the sewage system.”

This is a dirty job, but someone has to do it.

As a bonus, let’s find out once and for all if it’s COMPrable or COMPAREable.

The American Heritage Dictionary says COMPrable, but the suffix “able” usually doesn’t change the stress of a word, Curzan explains.

“So if you take a verb like agree and then you add able, you get agreeable. If you take compare and add able you don't get COMPAREable, you're supposed to say COMPrable.”

In 2002 the American Heritage Dictionary asked the usage panel about the proper pronunciation and 70% rejected COMPAREable. This was in spite of the fact that the editors noted that COMPAREable is very common and probably on its way into fashion.

But no matter the pronunciation, you, dear listeners, are beyond compare. 

Michigan Radio Newsroom - Cheyna Roth

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.