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columns and columnists

January 29, 2014

The word column has a silent n – everyone knows that. But what about columnist? Does the n then come back? Or is it still silent? I’ve heard quite a few people pronouncing it with the n: colum – nist. Which sounds a bit funny to me. I’ve always said colummist. Silent letters don’t usually come back in this way – we don’t sound the b in climbing, for instance. Nor do we sound the in singing. Unless we’re from Lancashire. And come to think of it, autumn has a silent n, and that does comes back in autumnal. So really I don’t know what I should say. Maybe I’ll ask a columnist. 

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  1. Why not simply ask, not what the deep rule is, but rather which is easier to say or sounds better, since that must be the basis for ‘non-grammar’ rules anyway. Autum-nal is just easier to say (key) and to hear (secondary). Likewise colum-nist and colum-nar. No doubt the ease with which the word falls off the lips depends on one’s linguistic background, so that the convention changes as one moves. So much the better. It’s an issue of aesthetics not logic nor clarity (grammer).

  2. Yes, I think you’re right. This one is a question of ease of utterance, and of euphony (which as you say depends on one’s linguistic background). The difficulty for me is that with ‘columnist’, I’m really not sure which is easier to say or which sounds more euphonious.

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