Nuclear Does Not Rhyme With Circular

This post might come across as some kind of linguistic snobbery, and while that’s not my motivation, it is a risk I am willing to take. 

The common mispronunciation of nuclear is something that drives me absolutely nuts. 

So many people pronounce it as nucular ( nyoo-kyoo-lar) but that is not how it is spelt or pronounced. I’ve even heard scientists on the radio and TV who say it that way, despite the fact that scientists of all people should know better. Did they get through however many of years study at university calling the central body of a cell the nuculus? I think not.

Nuclear is a three syllable word, pronounced nyoo-klee-ar.

If someone can say the words ‘new’ and ‘clear’ correctly, they should be able to manage ‘nuclear’ by just mashing those two words together. Think of it as linguistic nuclear fusion. 

It really isn’t rocket science. 

Why Word Nerds Love The International Phonetic Alphabet

The International Phonetic Alphabet is a system of symbols that denote all the different units of sound — called phonemes — that make up words in any language. It was first developed in the late 19th century, and has been developed and updated ever since. 

Photo: Joanne Van Leerdam. The IPA page in my copy of The Macquarie Encylopedic Dictionary, 2011 Signature Edition.

I learned the IPA in my first year at Macquarie University in 1985. and found it to be an incredibly useful extension of my literacy and learning.  It is knowledge and fluency that I have actively maintained ever since. 

While it has more symbols to learn, it is more straightforward than the English alphabet, where letters can have more than one sound, and a sound can have multiple letters and letter combinations assigned to them. In the IPA. there is one symbol for one sound. There are no silent letters, and there is clear differentiation between words such as ‘foot’ and ‘boot’ that look as though they should rhyme, but do not. It also avoids situations such as that created by the letter a having six different pronunciations from which the reader must choose correctly if they are to understand what has been written. Syllables in words are marked, so that the pronunciation of the word is clearly and accurately transcribed. 

Hypothetically, one could write any word of any language as it was heard, and anyone fluent in IPA could read it regardless of which other languages they could or could not speak or read fluently. 

That came in very handy when lecturers and tutors in other courses used words or names I didn’t know: I used the IPA to write them down, so that I could research and identify them later. When I wanted to keep something confidential, I used the IPA to make notes or records, confident in the knowledge that my friends and family would have absolutely zero clue what was written. That probably wasn’t always entirely necessary, but it did give me a sense of security at the time. The IPA also helped me learn and perfect key phrases to use when family from overseas came to visit, and again later on when I was visiting other countries.

Photo: Joanne Van Leerdam. from The Macquarie Encylopedic Dictionary, 2011 Signature Edition.

A number of dictionaries, both online and hard copy, provide the pronunciation of every word in IPA, giving clear guidance to how unknown words should be spoken. As a fan of the IPA, this is something I consider essential in a dictionary for my own use. 

Because it is an international system of transcribing language, the IPA does include symbols that are not often used in standard UK or Australian English. They may, however, be very useful in transcribing the spoken English of migrant communities. It also has some symbols that are only used in English, and some that are used predominantly in American English.

All of this makes the IPA a versatile tool for all sorts of contexts: work, travel, study, clear communication, and general word nerdery. 

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Resources: 

Easily Confused Words: ‘Dessert’ and ‘Desert’.

This is a confusing set of homophones. 

Dessert is  the sweet course eaten at the end of a meal. What’s your favourite? I’m an absolute sucker for lemon meringue pie, but I also love a creamy lemon cheesecake.  A dessert wine is, similarly, sweet and intended to be enjoyed after a meal. 

The key thing to remember is that this is the only meaning for this spelling.

Fun fact: ‘desserts’ is ‘stressed’ spelt backwards, and an anagram of ‘de-stress’.  
I don’t know about you, but I do not believe that can be a coincidence.

The word ‘desert’ is used when someone gets what they deserve, and it is said they have “got their just deserts”. It is usually used in a punitive way – ‘getting your just desert’ is generally not considered to be a pleasant experience. 

Because this is a “thing” that happens, this use of the word is also a noun. 

Fun fact: this is a phrase that came to us from French via  Shakespeare, who used it in Sonnet 72, albeit in a more positive way than is usually done. So anyone using the word ‘desert’ in this way is using Shakespeare’s language without even realising it. 

The word ‘desert’ can also mean abandoning or running away from a place. A soldier who goes AWOL is said to desert their post, while rats are said to ‘desert a sinking ship’ as a metaphor for people disowning or abandoning a place, person or situation that has become painful, awkward or insupportable. 

When we say a place is deserted, it does not mean it looks like a desert. It means that there are no people around – everyone has departed. 

Finally, a desert is a place that doesn’t get much rain, and is quite barren as a result. 

This is the only meaning that sees ‘desert’ pronounced with the emphasis on the first syllable: dez-ert This makes it a homonym, not a homophone.  Because it’s a place, this is also a noun. 

Fun fact: while the Sahara Desert is hot and sandy, Antarctica is the world’s largest cold desert. 

You can use a sentence to help you remember the three different words that share this spelling. Saying it aloud will help you remember which is which.
Example: The soldier got his just deserts for deserting his post in the hot desert.

Practice or Practise – Which One Makes Perfect?

Knowing whether to use ‘practice’ or ‘practise’ can be tricky. Because these words are homophones, and the spelling is very similar, it is easy to make mistakes. 

Practice is the noun
I need more practice. 
Practice is key to being a good pianist. 

Practise is the verb
I must practise if I’m going to get this right. 
I used to practise on the piano for an hour every day. 

There is one easy way to remember which is which: these words follow the same spelling rule as ‘advice’ and ‘advise’. 

Advice is a thing you give or receive.  Advise is something you do. 
Because that pair of words don’t sound the same, it’s easy to remember which is which.

You can also think of the ending – ‘ice’ – which we know is a thing, and that reminds us which one of the pair is the noun.

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Fun fact:  In British and Australian English, ‘licence’ and ‘license’ follow the same rule. 
I have my driver’s licence. I am licensed to drive. 

However, American English spells both the noun and the verb as license.