The consummate sky-speaker

Illustration of Halley’s Comet as it appeared in the skies of 1680, 1682 and 1683 (NASA | JPL)

Those of us who love English and perhaps even make our living from it – which includes teachers, writers, bloggers and editors – often have pet peeves about pronunciation. But what annoys one fussy grammarian may seem quite all right to another. I’m not bothered if someone says “irregardless” or even “mis-CHEE-vee-us.” And sometimes the seemingly incorrect pronunciation is actually not wrong. Take for example the brouhaha over “I couldn’t care less” versus “I could care less.” The latter was the more recent arrival in the US (in the 1950s), and it is downright illogical when you think about it; but many seem to think it’s the better way to say it. Nonetheless, it’s actually more proper to stick with the original “couldn’t care less.”

But one word is so consistently mispronounced that I’ve been repeatedly corrected when I say it the right way, which is why it drives me bonkers. This word is “consummate” when used as an adjective, as in “the consummate pastry chef.”


The word brims with potential pitfalls. When used as a verb, as to “consummate a marriage,” everyone rightly says CON-sum-mate. And when used as an adjective to mean “of the highest caliber,” everyone says, “She’s a CON-sum-it pianist.” This is flat-out wrong, but bear with me and you’ll see why it’s interesting.

It should be pronounced con-SUM-it, with a strong stress on the middle syllable. This whole issue arises because, when I was introduced last month as a speaker at a big Minneapolis astronomy convention, the host called me a CON-sum-it astronomy writer. I felt appreciative of his compliment, but it took every ounce of willpower to keep from correcting him onstage, which would have been obnoxious. That’s why I’m venting.

If you love English, here’s the story as explained in the Stack Exchange website: Consummate is one of a fairly large number of -ate words in English whose adjective and verb forms are always, usually or often pronounced differently. Words that follow this pattern include aggregate, animate, appropriate, approximate, correlate, degenerate, deliberate, deviate, duplicate and so on. In the adjective form, they usually have an “it” sound at the end. And so does consummate, so it isn’t some weird exception.

While we’re doing pronunciation, let’s review the actual universe. Sadly, relatively few speak about astronomical objects, which makes such pronunciations almost up for grabs. It doesn’t help that Alex Trebek on Jeopardy invariably uses the vox pop way of saying things rather than the correct way whenever there’s a divergence between the two. He always says your-AIN-us and recently uttered BEETLE-juice, instead of the proper YOUR-in-is and BET’l’juice – although, in fairness, some dictionaries do list the star’s pronunciation as Beetlejuice ever since the 1988 Geena Davis movie that was spelled that way, and thus it’s not wrong.

But VAY-ga is always wrong: The star should be pronounced VEE-ga. Indeed, Vega was pronounced WEE-ga until about a century ago. In the constellation department, the most commonly mispronounced of the 88 groupings is Scorpius, because people often mistake it for the astrological sign and therefore say Scorpio. When it comes to comets, the winner (or loser) will probably always be the first periodic (returning) comet ever found, named after its discoverer Edmund Halley. So it should be HAL-ee’s comet. Instead, people recall the ’50s rock group Bill Haley and his Comets and say it the way that chubby performer did, as HALE-ey.

A star, a constellation and a comet: Get them right and you’ll come off as a consummate observer.

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