Air on the side of caution?

Discussion in 'English Only' started by Paulfromitaly, Mar 17, 2011.

  1. Paulfromitaly

    Paulfromitaly MODerator

    Brescia (Italy)

    A friend of mine (English native speaker) wrote "air on the side of caution" instead of "err on the side of caution" in an informal email she sent me.
    I had a little laugh over it and then tried to Google "air on the side of caution" to see how common that spelling mistake (or what I thought it was just a spelling mistake) was.
    I found thousands of hits for "air on the side of caution", most of them on blogs or on not particularly reliable websites.
    However a couple of hits leaped out at me:
    This one on an apparently trustworthy Canadian website
    where the "mistake" is right in the headline and this other one
    from a book titled "flagrant Foul" (the name says it all..) again by a Canadian writer and journalist, Bob McDonald.

    Now I wonder: is "air" instead of "err" by any chance acceptable in Canadian English?
    Is the Canadian English pronunciation of "air" and "err" so similar that Canadian speakers are easily mistaken?
    Am I right to consider it a mistake?

    Thank you
    Last edited: Mar 17, 2011
  2. TimLA

    TimLA Senior Member

    Los Angeles
    English - US
    Hey guy.

    The "Air" in the headline is a play on words - they're talking about respiratory protection.

    I'll bet most of the formal examples you see are plays on words.
  3. johngiovanni

    johngiovanni Senior Member

    Buonasera, Paul! "To air on the side of caution" is an airer, in my view, but who am I to say you are wrung? (Tim is rite).
  4. Paulfromitaly

    Paulfromitaly MODerator

    Brescia (Italy)
    My bad! I didn't read the whole article :)

    An "airer" too many people seem to make :D
  5. idialegre Senior Member

    Hamburg, Germany
    USA English
    To answer your question, however: yes, many people in the US (and I assume Canada also) pronounce "err" and "air" the same way. Whether it is "acceptable" I don't know, but like it or not, people do it.
  6. looking-at-the-stars Senior Member

    California, USA
    American English
    It's a very common mistake because if you've never seen it written, you only know what you've heard. It's like how my uncle thought world peace was "whirled peas" when he was a kid. :)
  7. Paulfromitaly

    Paulfromitaly MODerator

    Brescia (Italy)
    I don't think it's an acceptable mistake, but your comment gives a good explanation as to why so many people make it.
  8. johngiovanni

    johngiovanni Senior Member

    In the context of "air-guitar" and its exponents, you will find "to air is human". (I don't know what is "divine" in the same context.) Just for the sake of posterity, do not forget "To Hare is Human" - a 1956 Merrie Melodies animation starring Bugs Bunny - another play on words.
    Last edited: Mar 17, 2011
  9. sandpiperlily

    sandpiperlily Senior Member

    Yes, in my Midwestern US accent, the words "air" and "err" sound identical, rhyming with the first syllable of "error," "airplane," and very close to "arrogant."

    My relatives in New England pronounce "err" with more of an "eh" vowel. Similarly, they make the famous distinction between "marry" and "merry," which I pronounce identically (much to their horror and shame!).
  10. indigofire1230 Member

    English - Canada (CaE)
    As a Canadian, I can assure you that "air" and "err" sound virtually identical in Central Canadian English. You got me thinking about this, so I really thought hard and listened to both the sounds in my native accent. In normal, casual listening, they sound exactly the same. In very careful listening, I could hear that there is the very slightest extra stress in "air" that is not in "err" in my accent. But that's with a level of listening that is not involved in everyday conversation. So in everyday conversation, it's the same. We tell the difference by context.

    Mixing up "err on the side of caution" and saying "air on the side of caution" is a mistake I could definitely see happening. But "air on the side of caution" is not an idiomatic phrase in Canadian English, for the record, simply a mishearing of "err".

    Same with "marry" and "merry". I can only tell the difference in pronunciation in Canadian English when listening extremely closely. Otherwise it sounds the same.
    Last edited: Mar 18, 2011
  11. natkretep

    natkretep Moderato con anima

    English (Singapore/UK), basic Chinese
    So the 'error' is perfectly understandable.

    Does no US or Canadian speaker ever say err to rhyme with fur then? The Merriam-Webster gives both pronunciations \ˈer, ˈər\. Perhaps it's out of date for AE?
    Last edited: Mar 18, 2011
  12. indigofire1230 Member

    English - Canada (CaE)
    Yes, very understandable. In normal situations you wouldn't hear a difference between "err" and "air".

    No, "err" and "fur" in Canada and the US sound nothing alike. "err" = "ayr" sound, fur sounds more like "frr" really, here in Canada. You barely hear the vowel in between really.

    Edit: I have never heard this in spoken English before, but I did find what you mean when I searched "err" rhyming with "fur". Apparently that was actually the original pronunciation it seems, but it is very rarely used now, at least in North America. Probably because of the association people make between "err" and "error", which begins with an "air" like sound.
    Last edited: Mar 18, 2011
  13. Paulfromitaly

    Paulfromitaly MODerator

    Brescia (Italy)
    That's how (some) British pronounce it actually (air/eə(r)/ -err /ɜːr / -fur /fɜːr /), making that kind of spelling mistake less excusable.
  14. Hermione Golightly

    Hermione Golightly Senior Member

    SW London
    British English
    This sort of spelling mistake from a native speaker is easily excusable- feeling relaxed when writing informally, or being rather tired, being older or suffering from any form of cognitive difficulty either temporary, recurrent or chronic, or having had a glass or two too much.
    Considering the pronunciation of erroneous, erratic and error it makes perfect sense to pronounce 'err' in the same way which does sort of sound like 'air' It's clear that a lot of people do pronounce err very like air. There are some major differences in pronunciation in the UK. There are two words at least that my husband pronounces in a way that I think is wrong, but I know that so many people do pronounce them as he does that it isn't considered 'wrong', just an uncommon alternative.
    The correct spelling is of course 'erred'. Maybe your friend is a rotten speller. One of the brightest people I know, excellent at maths, spells very badly. English spelling is very hard for many native speakers regardless of their overall intelligence.

  15. ewie

    ewie Senior Member

    This septic isle!
    NW Englandish English
    As a matter of interest, Paul, is your friend Scottish, English, American, Canadian, or suffering from another form of cognitive difficulty either temporary, recurrent or chronic?
  16. Paulfromitaly

    Paulfromitaly MODerator

    Brescia (Italy)
    She's a Londoner :)
    She's usually very careful with her spelling, that's why her mistake caught my attention.
  17. pob14 Senior Member

    Central Illinois
    American English
    I've been trying to convince my fellow Americans for years that "err" is pronounced to rhyme with "fur." I have had no success. :D Merriam lists both the "air" and the "ur" pronunciations. I have also noted a disturbing increase in the number of people using "error" as a verb; "the court errored in ruling against me." I'd rather have them say "air" than "error"!
    Last edited: Mar 18, 2011
  18. sandpiperlily

    sandpiperlily Senior Member

    I've never heard "err" pronounced to rhyme with "fur." No offense, but that sounds quite ugly to my ear! ...or should I say, my urr? ;)
  19. TimLA

    TimLA Senior Member

    Los Angeles
    English - US

    I've heard it from those who live in the colder climes of the Northeast, particularly around Baston (Avid and all) and I've heard it rarely on TV.

    Uhh...ur...I prefer the "air" sound.:)
    From a purely contextual/grammatical context
    "I would prefer to 'air' on the side..."
    "I would prefer to 'err' on the side..."
    the two words could not be confused.:D
    Last edited: Mar 18, 2011
  20. Paulfromitaly

    Paulfromitaly MODerator

    Brescia (Italy)
    This audio clip (along with the speaker's comment) is self-explanatory :)

    In the light of it, BrE speakers should never make such a mistake.
  21. Alxmrphi Senior Member

    Reykjavík, Ísland
    UK English
    My pronunciation of both of them is identical.
    That initial low vowel sounds quite archaic to me, or at least southern (RP), I haven't decided yet :D

    But for me this is just another time when people write the wrong words because they sound the same, such as "*should of done" or "*there bags", mistakes which I've seen my friends make multiple times on facebook today.
  22. Loob

    Loob Senior Member

    English UK
    Well, yes and no....

    My original/natural pronunciation of the word rhymes with "fur". But I've heard the rhymes-with-"fair" variant so many times - not only from AmE/CanE speakers - that I now avoid saying the word:eek:.

    It's not surprising, I think, that your friend from London should have made this mistake:).

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