Describing how to pronounce things

by Someone
(Somewhere)

Question: I need to describe how to pronounce a special word in my book. The word is simple, but the spelling is apparently usually pronounced in another way.


Let me use this name as an example: Kieran. It's pronounced Kee-ran, but let's assume that I want it to be pronounced Ki-eran.

My question is, how do I describe how to say the word, without straight out writing "It's pronounced Ki-eran"?

Answer: Several thoughts on this matter...

1. Does it matter? Readers often encounter names in books that they have never heard spoken aloud, so they guess at the pronunciations and get them wrong. For example, many Americans had no clue how to pronounce the name "Hermione" in the Harry Potter Books, at least not until the films came out. Or consider how the Irish name "Ciara," which in Ireland is pronounced "Keera," often gets pronounced as "Sierra" in the US. And then there's the first name "St. John," which is pronounced "Sin-jin" in the UK, but baffles readers everywhere else. As a writer, you must accept that you often can't control the reader's interpretations.

2. Sometimes you can find tricks that illustrate pronunciations, but sometimes they don't work. For instance, if I were to write in a children's book...

"This is a sled. It rhymes with Z."

... it would make sense in most English speaking countries, but in the US readers would be scratching their heads.

Similarly, Douglas Adams wrote about a character (a maid) named "Elena" whose name, he writes, rhymes with "cleaner," which it does in the UK but not in Canada or the U.S.

Tolkein tried including a pronunciation guide in The Lord of the Rings, but it's an awkward device for most readers.

3. If you feel it really matters that every reader pronounces the name correctly, and this is a fantasy book, consider spelling the name phonetically -- perhaps something like "Ki-eran" or "Ki Eran." That's probably your best hope.

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