“These folks prayed for me when I was in the hospital when they didn’t even know me. When I first came to visit, they knew me because they had been faithfully praying for me. They are serious pray-ers,” she says.These two sentences are from a story on the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh Web site, “Music, Prayer, & Art: Planting a Church in the Strip District,” a story I discovered while researching my last post, “Having It Both Ways, Take 2.”
“Pray-ers,” of course, is an odd rendering, but one can appreciate why it was used in this instance. Most often, “prayers” refers to certain spiritual acts, but “prayers,” pronounced differently, i.e., with two syllables rather than one, can also refer to people engaged in such acts.
It is easy to construct a sentence in which, absent further context, normal orthography is unable to disambiguate the use of “prayers.” Consider
She crept into the chapel and listened careful to the prayers.
So, should the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh have used “pray-er” or “prayer” or something else? Actually, were I the writer, I would have wanted to recast the sentence to avoid even a suggestion of ambiguity. Unfortunately, the sentence is part of a quotation, so that might not offer a conscientious alternative.
If one absolutely has to get creative in order to disambiguate the interpretation of “prayers,” we do have a mechanism that is more standard than inserting a hyphen into a word. We can use a diaeresis, a diacritical mark that indicates that a vowel is to be pronounced in a separate syllable. Thus, we could write