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November 1st, 2006

Well, maybe I can be snarky / pronouncing hundred and often / more than any (other)

by Barbara Wallraff

Last week I boasted that I hadn’t gotten a single letter agreeing with a reader’s earlier assertion that I’m sometimes “sarcastic and snotty.” A day later, of course, such a letter showed up. Gail Fraley, of Wayne, Mich., wrote: “I must agree. You do tend toward snarkiness in responses to your readers’ questions.”

Dear Gail: I asked, you answered, and thank you for your honesty. I mean that -- thank you. In deference to you and my other critic, I’m going to spend the rest of this column trying to be very, very nice. If anybody sees anything uncivil this week, be sure to let me know!

Kenneth E. Hitzke, of Madison, Wis., writes: “Please publish that the word ‘hundred’ should be pronounced ‘hun-dred’ and not the way many announcers and others, including the president, say it: ‘hunerd.’”

Dear Kenneth: Here you go. The word should be pronounced “hun-dred” -- the way it’s spelled.

Walsh, of Livonia, Mich., writes: “Please settle an argument: Is the ‘t’ in the word ‘often’ silent? I say it is.”

Dear L.: Not all words are, like “hundred,” best pronounced the way they’re spelled -- as you obviously know. And you’re right that the traditional pronunciation of “often” is with a silent “t.” At least, it’s traditional unless you want to go all the way back to the 14th century. The American Heritage Dictionary explains: “During the 15th century English experienced a widespread loss of certain consonant sounds within consonant clusters, as the (d) in ‘handsome’ and ‘handkerchief,’ the (p) in ‘consumption’ and ‘raspberry,’ and the (t) in ‘chestnut’ and ‘often.’ In this way the consonant clusters were simplified and made easier to articulate.”

But, the dictionary continues, in the 19th century, as ever larger numbers of people learned to read and to spell, “sounds that had become silent sometimes were restored, as is the case with the ‘t’ in ‘often,’ which is now frequently pronounced. In other similar words, such as ‘soften’ and ‘listen,’ the ‘t’ generally remains silent.”

Nonetheless, no North American dictionary I’m aware of gives the pronunciation with a “t” first. This means it’s not considered either better or more common. Pronouncing the “t” in “often” isn’t wrong, but not pronouncing it is more sophisticated.

John Darrow, of Denver, writes: “I often see or hear cars described as ‘more powerful (or faster or more economical, etc.) than any car in its class.’ Shouldn’t there be an ‘other’ in that phrase -- that is, ‘more powerful (etc.) than any other car in its class’? Here’s an example of the one kind of phrase where I wouldn’t use the word ‘other’: The teacher is ‘smarter than any student in his class.’”

Dear John: Thank you. Good points. When comparing a person or thing with one of a different kind -- as in your teacher and student example -- “other” is not only unnecessary, but wrong. But when comparing someone or something with ones of the same kind, “other” makes the sentence clearer and more logical. And if ever an “other” phrase seems wordy, here’s what to do: “The car is the most powerful (etc.) in its class.”

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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