Friday, December 9, 2011

Obligate: Two Words, One Spelling

I read a book in which the big baddy was an organization called Obligate. The author chose not to explain the reason for that name until halfway through the story, which meant that I did not know how to pronounce it for about two hundred pages. It surprised me how distracting that was.

If you are scratching your head, wondering what other pronunciation I’m writing about, this post is for you. Obligate does double duty, as both a verb and an adjective. You pronounce the two forms differently, however. When used as a verb, whether it’s compelling someone or committing funds, you say OB-li-gate (with a long A). That’s the form with which most people are familiar.

However, if you’re a biologist you likely use the word much differently. When referring to an organism that can live only in a particular environment or in a specific role in an ecosystem you call it OB-li-gƏt (with a short A represented by the schwa). The dictionary says you can use the long-A pronunciation of obligate as an alternate but it seems to me that doing so would only create confusion.

In case you’re curious, the organization in the book used the second definition and thus, when reading to myself, I used the short-A pronunciation of obligate. The rest of the book was much more interesting when I didn’t stop to wonder about that every third page. Think about how your readers will interpret such ambiguous words when you’re naming things in your own writing.

There! You get both a language and a writing tip in one post, something as dual-purpose as the word obligate itself.




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