Anne Curzan has a nice discussion of a vexed problem: when and how to correct people’s language. She opens with an anecdote:
Last month I was recording a lecture and had to say the word pyramidal. The passage, about bats in pyramidal cages, was an example of how the passive voice is deployed in scientific writing. I’d never before had occasion to say that word out loud.
I went with what seemed like a perfectly reasonable guess: pyramid (pronounced as usual) + –al, so the primary stress remained on the first syllable.
I got stopped. And corrected. “Py-RA-midal,” I was told. I had to practice a few times in my head before I could get it right on the videotape. (I now know that those of you in medicine have a leg up on me here, because you talk about the extrapyramidal system.)
Pronunciation is not the point here, though. What has stuck with me is how silly and disconcerted I felt when I got corrected. The insecure part of me felt as if I had just been outed. What kind of academic — let alone a linguist — doesn’t know how to pronounce pyramidal?
I can completely empathize with all that; I happen to know how to say pyramidal, but even at my semi-advanced age (I’m currently in the process of trying to figure out Medicare) and with my decades of obsessing about language, I still discover pronunciations I never learned (let’s not even talk about the simple words whose spelling I still have to look up to be sure), and if I said one of them wrong in such a situation and got corrected, you can bet I’d feel disconcerted. And she has an exemplary recommendation:
Next time you’re about to blurt out a correction of someone else’s language (their pronunciation or grammar or punctuation or something else), pause for a moment and consider what your goal is. Will this person really benefit from having you call out this bit of language, as I did when the producers corrected my pronunciation? And is this a good moment? If so, then go ahead — and do it kindly. If not, if the speech act will make you feel smart but not really help the other person, then consider keeping that correction in your head. Remember how stressful, if not downright silencing, it can be for someone to realize that you are listening to how they talk as much as to what they are saying.