Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Why is accidentally pronounced accident-ly and not accident-tal-ly?

Incidentally, some other adverbs have this same phenomenon, where some dictionaries show the second-to-last syllable as being optional.

share|improve this question
2  
Carelessness or ignorance. –  DavidR Jan 18 '13 at 10:07
1  
I have honestly never heard it with the dropped syllable, though some dictionaries do give it as an alternate. –  Robusto Jan 18 '13 at 10:09
1  
@DavidR ‘Ignorance’? That just is not true. Please cite your authority and references, as the OED disagrees with you (which you will note counts as both authority and reference). –  tchrist Jan 18 '13 at 10:46
    
@tchrist: What pronunciations does the OED give? I Personally pronounce it in as measured speech as I'm ever to elicit as /'æk sə 'dɛn ə lij/ –  Mitch Jan 18 '13 at 15:42

1 Answer 1

up vote 7 down vote accepted

For precisely the same reason as UK speakers often drop an unstressed syllable in words like medicine and secretary, making those come out as though they were spelt “medcine” and “secretry” instead.

It is because we sometimes reduce unstressed syllables not just to ambiguity, but to oblivion.


Edit: Barrie notes in a comment that the OED allows for only four syllables in accidentally, never five, so this is hardly uncommon.

Adding laboratory and territory to the list along with medicine and secretary, Patricia T. O’Connor observes here and here that dropping the penultimate syllable is a relatively “new” phenomenon in UK English, arising in the late 18th and early-to-mid 19th centuries. (But what happens with words like Worcester is something else, as she shows here).

But it is really no different than people pronouncing centuries as sentries, or -ally words as though they were -ly. Unstressed syllables are simply fragile. It is what happens in contractions, whether written or spoken. It can be also seen when Vulgar Latin developed into modern Romance, so it is not as though this were unique to English.

share|improve this answer
1  
Acknowledged in the OED, which gives both the British and US pronunciations as consisting of four syllables only, with no alternatives. –  Barrie England Jan 18 '13 at 10:25
    
Among others that always confuse me are basically, technically, practically and accidentally. Thanks for linking Grammarphobia. –  user32480 Jan 18 '13 at 13:45
    
@InglishTeeture I don’t understand: how do they “confuse” you? –  tchrist Jan 18 '13 at 14:19
    
@tchrist - The confusion is about whether to drop the syllable and say /li/ for every word that ends in –ally. It gets tricky when I don't have a dictionary nearby for a quick reference. –  user32480 Jan 18 '13 at 14:24
    
@InglishTeeture I’m not sure a dictionary is your best guide here. You have to develop your own ear for the language, and then do whatever makes sense in your current dialect and register and delivery. If you stare at it too long, it will begin to seem weird no matter what you do. –  tchrist Jan 18 '13 at 14:26

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.