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.

  • 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

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.

  • 1
    Acknowledged in the OED, which gives both the British and US pronunciations as consisting of four syllables only, with no alternatives. 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
  • 1
    tchrist, British people do not always drop an unstressed syllable in words like medicine and secretary. That varies between different people.
    – Tristan
    May 18 '13 at 17:59

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