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February 21st, 2007

Pronunciation of o / us people or we people?

by Barbara Wallraff

Steve White, of West Bloomfield, Mich., writes: “I have noticed that radio and TV announcers are accentuating the ‘o’ in words beginning with it. It’s especially noticeable in ‘official’ -- as in ‘The official temperature at the airport is ...’ This has begun during the past few years, among seasoned reporters who didn’t do it before. Was there some kind of media convention they all went to where they switched to this pronunciation?”

Dear Steve: How interesting. As it happens, a local anchorman for National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” in Boston, where I live, started driving me crazy about a year ago by practically mooing the pronunciation of “Moooooorning.” He’d never done it before; he’s done it every morning I’ve heard him since. So I, too, have been wondering: Is something going on with the pronunciation of “o”?

If anyone would know, it would be Kee Malesky, National Public Radio’s librarian and pronunciation expert. So I asked her, and here’s what she told me: “If there is ‘something going on’ with the letter ‘o’ in the media, I’m not aware of it. I really haven’t noticed this from NPR on-air staff, and I do listen carefully for odd pronunciations and other language problems. I have many personal pet peeves about pronunciations in the media -- and in the world, too! But this one isn’t on my list, except that here in the Maryland area they do overemphasize the ‘o’ within some words, and it makes my ears cringe.”

I guess it’s just us, Steve. And thanks to Kee for information that you and I will want to know if either of us is ever tempted to move to Maryland.

Elinor Guess, of Ballston Spa, N.Y., writes: “I couldn’t help but notice your use in a recent column of ‘us’ in the phrase ‘if the rule doesn’t come naturally to us native-English-speaking people.’ Thank goodness our forefathers didn’t begin the Declaration of Independence with ‘Us the people.’ Am I not correct that the proper way to state it is ‘we native-English-speaking people’?”

Dear Elinor: Actually, you’re thinking of the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, not the Declaration of Independence. Its grammar is fine by me. But the fact that “we the people” is such a familiar phrase in American English sometimes leads people to misuse it.

Anywhere that “we” alone would be grammatically correct, “we the people” is also correct. Thus, “We the People of the United States ... do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” But where “us” alone would be correct -- as in, “if the rule doesn’t come naturally to us” -- “us the people” is the way to go.

P.S. to anyone who is sharpening a pencil or switching on the computer to write me an indignant letter about “it’s just us” in my answer to the previous question: I know it’s grammatically incorrect. It’s an idiom. You would have me say “it’s just we”? Of course there are other ways to convey the idea that Steve White and I seem to be very much in the minority. But I’m sticking with “it’s just us” because it’s efficient, clear and down-to-earth.

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

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