Thursday, 16 September 2010

instances of incidence

Spelling mistakes can be an interesting indication of facts of pronunciation. Here is something I saw in Saturday’s Guardian.They are of course not incidences of cold-calling but instances of it.

Many people do not, or do not consistently, distinguish in pronunciation between instance and incidence.

An incident is “an event, especially one that is unusual, important, or violent” (LDOCE); incidence [usually singular] is “the number of times something happens, especially crime, disease etc”. Despite these dictionary definitions, a quick Google search throws up 35,000 instances (yes!) of isolated incidences.

I wrote about this on 9 May 2008. Here’s what I said then.
The confusion arises because instance and incidence may be pronounced identically in rapid speech. This is because of the possible disappearance of the vowel of the middle syllable of incidence. We can, and often do, go straight from the s to the d, omitting the weak vowel (ə, or a conservative ɪ) that would otherwise stand between them. Since under these circumstances the d, now abutting on a voiceless consonant, gets devoiced, the result is that the -sd̥- of incidence ends up very similar to the -st- of instance.

In moderately-paced speech the deleted vowel seems to leave some compensatory lengthening of the preceding consonant: ˈɪn(t)sːd̥ən(t)s.
In rapid speech, however, I think this subtlety of timing can be lost, making incidence as good as homophonous with instance.

At UCL some of us at one time called this phenomenon ‘pseudo-elision’, as opposed to true elision where the deleted segment supposedly leaves no trace at all.

We find the same thing in words such as trinity, comedy, Cassidy, quality, university (can it rhyme with thirsty?). In trinity the tongue tip may remain in place on the alveolar ridge as we pass from the (lengthened?) [n] to the [t], with no intervening vowel.

At the time I wrote that, dear readers, you could not comment on it. Now (if you wish) you can.


  1. I suppose these are the things which make one's speech sound native-like. We non-natives have to learn first the "correct" forms and then the English way to make them "incorrect". The question is: Could one sound perfectly English by speaking just as is recommended in J.D. O'Connor's books for foreign learners?

  2. By the way, I think J.D. O'Connor's books are the best.

  3. @ Anonymous: Yes, I think you're right. As a native speaker, that's one of the main things I've noticed about non-native speakers of English is that their speech sounds too perfect and correct, if that makes sense.

  4. I'm not at all sure that this isn't just a case of lack of understanding of the distinction between the two words, and not necessarily because of pronunciation.
    Whoever wrote that might just think that "There are incidences of" is another way to say "Many incidences were report of".

  5. I would think this only applies to British English? I'm guessing flapping would render this an impossibility in American English; certainly this is the case in my idiolect. Also, I'm totally willing to accept the usage of "incidence" above. COCA turns up 249 hits for "incidences", and 3 for "isolated incidences".

  6. @ Gadi: I was thinking that too.

  7. I think this is cross-linguistic: it's very common for natives to say to fluent foreigners "You speak better <name of language> than I do", because it's schooled rather than natural speech.

    But as for incidence, I think that a purely semantic explanation is available. From the incidence of diabetes (the number of cases per year), it is a fairly small step to an incidence (an occurrence), and then of course to incidences. Instance may not have been involved at all. Unfortunately, the OED Online entry for incidence is pretty much pure OED1, with just a few post-1900 examples in the scientific senses.

  8. The eggcorns forum notes "coinstance" for "coincidence".

  9. Molly, my immediate reaction to the Guardian quote was to recognize it in the sense of the No. 1. definition given by The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition: "The act or an instance of happening; occurrence: did not expect criticism and was surprised by its incidence". But I first checked it in the OED, which was a complete waste of time, as I subsequently saw John C had already discovered.

    Even the definition John W gives – “the number of times something happens, especially crime, disease etc” doesn't seem to exclude “the number of times bogus companies cold-call people”.

    I still incline to the semantic explanation, but I'm happy to be encouraged by your eggcorn to see his eggcorn hypothesis as part of the picture.

  10. This may reflect my American perspective, but I would have assumed that the writer simply meant "incidents," but was attracted to the related expression "incidences" because it has more syllables. I would not have ascribed the choice of words to phonetics at all, but to the same principle that makes some people, such as the writers of radio advertisements, speak (to my great irritation) of "scientific advancements" when they mean scientific advances.

  11. MKR, more plausible still, from any perspective.

  12. Hmmm, I smell a word-merger in the recent future.