(An anecdote from a non-native speaker trying to master the World Language: Have you ever had one of those experiences where you pronounce words below the English standard? ESL and EFL teachers have their own embarrassing moments.)

It took me 33 years of my life to discover that 'Preface' is read as /preh-fus/. Oh sure, I've seen this word a thousand times. From the day I've learned how to read and been asked to read more than I watch TV, I kept on seeing this word on the first few pages, which was also the last pages for some because they don't contain any pictures.

But how was I supposed to know? "Pre" is 'prepare' - and I hear that all the time from home, to school, and back. Well, even in church. And ‘face’ is face - with pride and confidence. In my young mind, ‘Pre + face’ is what I always thought it to be. It's not like I've heard any teacher talk about 'preface' in school, nor would I be hearing it on Sesame Street. Not a chance.

Growing up in an ESL country has its own challenges. It is very easy and natural to assume words at face value. I remember my American-accent trainer (or accent neutralization enforcer) saying "When you assume, you make an ass of you and me." Knowing that I could be wrong, I have become dictionary-dependent, and most especially on trying to hear an audio pronunciation. But why would I bother checking all the words that I have known since childhood? Unlearning what I have learned is such an unpleasant experience.

From time to time, I get vigilant. My ears become the nasty critic in a room full of non-native speakers. However, 10 years later, I still didn't encounter the word. It may be that I was too proud to listen, too pre-occupied to care, or we were all in the same boat. But not until a few months ago, in a Phone English class setting, that that simple word was audibly spoken. It came as another example after a word was being disputed for an American or a British pronunciation.

My first reaction was "huh?!" In modest humility, I looked it up in the dictionary, and alas, there it was, staring me at the face. "Where have you been all my life?" It reminded me of other 'traditional' information that I need to get rid of in my life. I looked up another online dictionary - trying to justify my misinformation, but to no avail. I wasn't able to join in the conversation at that moment; I was too embarrassed to admit I didn't know, too.

What I do not know can hurt me. Just the thought of knowing that I don't know such a trivial word hurts! I felt betrayed. So this is how I get even:

The word ‘preface’ came about in the late 14th century. Its origin was Old French, which came from Medieval Latin  ‘prefatia,’ and from Classical Latin ‘praefatio.’ The verb ‘prefaced’ was then used around 1610.

Common synonyms are ‘foreword, introduction, preamble and prologue.’ However, by usage, these can still be distinguished from each other. A preface is usually written by the author and it most of the time explains why the book was written. The introduction is also written by the author, but it is more concerned about the topic of the book. The foreword is generally written by someone else, most likely an attempt to increase the book’s popularity and ratings.

I am now at the end of my article, and yet I am still hooked on that subject that deals with the first part of books. I have to confess that I am, sometimes, a preface-reader. And I also fall into the trap of judging books by its cover. If only I could get past the cover…oh well.

(image: Wikipedia)