Thursday, February 14, 2013


I've learned that I probably spend more time thinking about grammar/usage than others. Here's one example that lept off the wall at me while at a conference center in November.

See it? MENS. Not Men's or Men. MENS. Apparently there's a new acceptable form of the plural for man. I must have missed the memo. This post has little to do with that example, but it shows you that I cared enough about grammar to take out my phone to take a picture to see if others would notice/care about such egregious mistakes. Let's move on to the real reason everyone is reading this post. You, like I, have spent a lot of time thinking about the pronunciation of that word in the subject of this post.

I needed some clarity, so I reached out to someone who thinks about (and has studied) language even more than I have: my brother. He's a smart guy. He, more than anyone I know, manages to nonchalantly bring up declensions, word origin, and general oddities in the language as a part of regular conversation. Here are the pertinent parts of our email conversation:

Dave: Hey word guru. How do I pronounce that word? Is it process(ehs) or process(eez)?

Dan: Both allowed according to Webster, in phonetic nomenclature the short e appears as an upside-down e or a 'schwa', which is usually more like a guttural grunt like 'uh' or 'i' which you already felt in your 'eh' clarification below.  The 'ee' sound is usually represented by ē, or an i with and hour glass style double triangle to the right.

Dave: Which one do you use?

Dan: This is a good question.  I have been using the latter, long e, but I would not criticize anybody using the shorter schwa. The problem is the syllable stress in English.  Prócesses expects an accent or stress on the o, which is the antepenultimate syllable, which is where many long English words like to be accented (mágnify, tranquílity, rastafárian).  You would never say procésses, unless you are a choir director discussing entrance into a concert -- anachronistic intransitive usage from the 1800's in my opinion--proceed and recede would be useful enough. 
When I use the long <e> in processes, it's nearly impossible to hear at least a little accent at both the antepenult and the ultima (prócessés) because of the length of the last vowel.  Therefore I have no problem with Webster treating the plural like a short e because my English ear likes to hear prócesses. (Sounds melodic as well: tri-pl-et, YA-da-da,YA-da-da, YA-da-da)
Here's the real mind-blower:
Pronunciation of eez at the end of a word is an anglicization of a Latin/Greek plural in the third declension. Pure third decl. loan words in English (with some plurals, to see the pattern) are
Crisis  > crises
Axis > axes
Ellipsis > ellipses
[ some X words]
Matrix > matrices
Index> indices
Appendix > appendices 
Vertex > vertices 

All these are usually pronounced with eez in the plural, but guess what, 'process' does not exist as a third declension noun (it is a 4th in Latin) so we appear to be letting the influence of the words listed above 'back-form' our pronunciation of the plural of process and probably a few other English words too.  

To my knowledge there are no loan words in English from the Latin 4th declension, otherwise we wouldn't even be having this conversation, because we would be saying 'processūs'

Dave: Now THAT'S a Dan response (i.e., what I was expecting). I greatly appreciate it. Here's why I asked in the first place: I have always pronounced it with the schwa. I've been hearing more people use the long e, and wondered why. I use it probably once a class when I'm teaching and I always catch on that word because if I pronounce it with the schwa, I wonder how many think I'm pronouncing it incorrectly. I also wonder if I switch the long e, how many will wonder why I'm pronouncing it that way. This is my thought process (yep, singular) during the sentence leading up to my pronunciation, so I actually just end up bailing entirely on the word and swallowing the last part or mutating the last part of the sentence so I can pronounce it in the singular. 

I'm really interested in your analysis (yep, singular) of how this list of words that switch to the long e plurals has influenced our pronunciation of the word at hand. That sounds about right. Thank you. 

Dan: Taking it back once more to your precisely correct question from 1:34 today : "Which one do you USE?"
 In language--there is no such thing as in/correct. [This is a major linguistics thesis to which everyone ought to be exposed in high school, but which seems to slip through the cracks somewhere between Romeo and Juliet and research papers] 
There is no such thing as in/correct,  only mutual intelligibility (or the lack thereof, therefore distinct dialects/languages) through USAGE.  So if one of your students thinks your pronunciation is incorrect, direct them to our good friends Merriam, Webster, Associated Press, Oxford, or dare I say any other publisher who has recognized multiple usages such as the two plurals of process. And rest as easily about your own correctness... 

Perhaps you have now thought more about that word than you ever thought possible. After all this, I'm still not sure which one I'll use. I'll probably switch because my big brother says it that way, and I'll probably still think about the Latin 4th declension every time I use it.