Words making the headlines – controversial

Yes - No

Here’s a word that doesn’t tend to appear in headlines. It’s a bit too long for that. However, it’s regularly used to describe anything that’s causing public disagreement and discussion. We’re talking about the word controversial.

It’s a word that’s frequently attached to the highly controversial figure of US President Donald Trump and every controversial action he takes. Unusually, the most common use in the last week or so has not been Mr Trump’s latest controversial statement or latest Tweet containing a controversial claim or a controversial opinion about a controversial topic such as immigration or US international relations. The word controversial has been used most to describe Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury which claims to tell the inside story of Mr Trump’s first year as President of the USA.

Let’s pause for a moment and examine the pronunciation of the word. Here’s the phonemics: /ˌkɒn.trəˈvɜː.ʃəl/  . We need to get the word stress in the correct place. It falls on the third syllable. That means you say the word like this: controVERsial. However, notice in the phonemics that in British English we don’t tend to pronounce the letter ‘r’ in that stressed syllable. However, North American speakers such as Mr Trump do include that sound.

There’s another transatlantic pronunciation difference. Controversial is an adjective that derives from the noun controversy. In Britain, we have a choice. We can pronounce it with the stress on the second syllable: conTROversy or on the first syllable: CONtroversy. Over in the US they usually use the second pronunciation.

Now let’s go back to other uses of controversial. We’ll stay in the United States where Mr Trump has a controversial proposal to build a wall on the border with Mexico. Californians recently voted to pass controversial legislation to allow people in that state to buy, sell and use marijuana. Finally, there’s the ongoing investigation into the Trump election campaign’s controversial relations with people in Russia. All of which gives Americans plenty to discuss and disagree about even after they’ve finished reading Michael Wolff’s book.


Practise your listening. Click on play to hear the text.

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