October 29, 2013


“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.

Praying hands
Technically, the passage above would not have been ambiguous had the word in question been written normally; “they” in the second and third sentences both have the antecedent “folks” in the first sentence. Thus, the noun complement (predicate nominative) “prayers”  must also refer to “folks.” Since “prayers” more commonly refers to spiritual acts, rather than to persons engaged in those acts, however, the reader might easily stumble over how to pronounce “prayers.” Unfortunately, the non-standard orthography that is meant to avoid ambiguity in the above quotation interrupts the flow of the text anyway by virtue of its novelty.

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.
Should “prayers” be read as the one-syllable word or the two-syllable word? Because the verb “to listen” can be applied either to people or to sounds that might be emitted by people, one cannot know, from this sentence alone, which usage was intended (and therefore which way one should pronounce “prayers”). The possible interpretations of the sentence are related, but the difference is significant, and a careful writer would likely want to rule out the unintended meaning.

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
  Alas, most readers would stumble over that as well.


  1. Why disambiguate when you can clarify? According to the OED, the hyphen has been most often used as a way to distinguish the two senses of the word, and quotes examples as early as 1843. It has also been used by Thomas Carlyle, which must give it some standing in English. If either sense must be given an alternative form, it ought to be the one hyphenated, since the suffix 'er' has such an overwhelming claim to represent the other. The gerund 'praying' has the best linguistic standing, I would think, 'Prayment' won't do. The real problem is that the word is French in origin, so it has a natural tendency to misbehave. But the Latin equivalents (oration and orator) have so long been used for other things that I doubt they can be reclaimed. Better to use the hyphen.

    1. Philip, thanks for your comment. I had not thought of consulting the OED. I don’t ever remember seeing a hyphen used as in “pray-ers.” I should check my Chicago Manual of Style.

  2. I have now checked my CMS, and 7.80 seems relevant. It reads, in part:

    A hyphen can make for easier reading by showing structure and, often, pronunciation. Words that might otherwise be misread, such as re-creation or co-op, should be hyphenated.

    I continue to think that “pray-ers” looks very odd, however.

  3. It is odd, but I would expect that is the point. To call us to a moment of attention. In a sense, what we have is a kind of pun. We are "persons who offers the prayer," but in a somewhat poetic way as well we are, also, "the prayer" itself. Prayer and Pray-er.

    Bruce Robison

    Bruce Robison


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