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et or ate?

June 18, 2015

Yesterday I went along to a recording studio in Wardour Street to record my children’s novel The Big Wish for the audio book version (due out in August, I think). I was reading happily along until I came to the sentence “As I drank the tea and ate the Hobnobs while sitting on my bed, I pondered on being a superhero”, and realised I had to make a very quick decision: was I going to pronounce ate to rhyme with get or gate?

Nearly all my life I’ve pronounced it as et. I thought that eat had a mutated past tense following the same pattern of pronunciation (though not spelling) as the past tenses of certain other verbs, such as lead (past tense led) and read (past tense read, to rhyme with led). I thought the pronunciation of ate to rhyme with gate was a mistake – a “spelling pronunciation”.

However, this latter pronunciation seems to be winning out. It is the normal form in American English, as far as I can make out, and is widely used by younger people in Britain. (In fact there is a playground joke involving this pronunciation that I’ve heard my children say:

“I one the sick.”

“I two the sick”

“I three the sick.”

“I four the sick.”

“I five the sick.”

“I six the sick.”

I seven the sick.”

“I eight the sick….”

“Ugh! You ate the sick!”)

Should I say et or ate? Faced with this dilemma I had to think quickly, and opted for the pronunciation familiar to me, et. But I now wish I hadn’t. This is a book for children so I should have gone with the most up-to-date pronunciation. I’ve got a feeling et will sound rather quaint and dialectal in a few years, if it doesn’t already.

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