Anne Curzan | Michigan Radio
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Anne Curzan

Contributor, That's What They Say

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.

As an expert in the history of the English language, Anne describes herself as a fount of random linguistic information about how English works and how it got to be that way. She received the University's Henry Russel Award for outstanding research and teaching in 2007, as well as the Faculty Recognition Award in 2009 and the 2012 John Dewey Award for undergraduate teaching.

Anne has published multiple books and dozens of articles on the history of the English language (from medieval to modern), language and gender, and pedagogy. Her newest book is Fixing English: Prescriptivism and Language History (2014). She has also created three audio/video courses for The Great Courses, including "The Secret Life of Words" and "English Grammar Boot Camp."

When she is not tracking down new slang or other changes in the language, Anne can be found running around Ann Arbor, swimming in pools both indoor and out, and now doing yoga (in hopes that she can keep running for a few more years to come).

Something that’s out of your hands is different from something that’s out of hand, which is usually different from something that’s offhand. So which phrase goes where? 

When our listener Bruce Sagan heard one of these phrases on Morning Edition recently, he wondered whether it was used correctly.

  

This week we're getting back to our roots. Our Latin roots, that is.

A listener named Seth Epstein asked us how to pronounce the Latin phrase "in situ." He says, "I've heard it as in-sigh-too, or in-see-too, but I learned it as in-sit-choo."

This is just one of the Latin phrases that have become part of English with variable pronunciation.


There are pundits who really don't like it if people call them "pundents." As a listener pointed out to us, this mispronunciation isn't uncommon.

Susan Serafin Jess says, "The otherwise fastidious Jim Lehrer said ['pundent' for 'pundit'] throughout his tenure on the PBS News Hour. I have heard other journalists misuse this, including on WUOM."


This week we looked at two words that have nothing to do with each other, aside from the fact that they both begin with “p.” At least they’ve got one thing in common.

Our first “p” word is “pound.” Our listener Jay Winegarden often hears people use the phrase “pounding beers” or something similar when relaying a drinking story.


We keep track of things, we lose track of things, we run track, and listen to tracks. Sometimes though, we confuse “track” with “tract.”

Recently, a graduate student who works closely with Professor Anne Curzan pointed out a job posting for a “tenure tract” position.

Our listener Susan Lessian is a Boston transplant who says she still struggles with some "midwesternisms," despite having moved here years ago.

She says, "The one that disturbs me the most is the use of 'can't hardly' for 'can hardly.' Isn't this actually a double negative?"

Susan is right that many usage guides have classified "can't hardly" as a double negative. But the situation is more complicated than that.


Many of us were taught that a sentence should never end with a preposition. However, some sentences just sound better when they do.


Generally, the word “either” is pronounced either with a long “I” sound or a short “I” sound. People on both sides have pledged loyalty to their particular pronunciation.

Either way, we think there’s a more interesting debate to be had over this word.


The rule about when to use "between" and when to use "among" seems straightforward, until you look more closely. Then it's not straightforward at all.

Our listener Lowell Boileau wanted to know what we think about this rule:

"My understanding is that 'between' is for 'between two parties' and 'among' is for 'among three or more parties.'  Yet I hear and read 'between' frequently used in reference to three or more."

Many of us grew up with this exact same rule, but Lowell is right. Not everyone follows it.

When we describe someone as “obtuse,” there are clear negative connotations. The scope of those connotations has been expanding, perhaps because of the word “abstruse.”

“Abstruse” came on our radar recently when Professor Anne Curzan received an email with this subject line: “I thought this word was a joke: abstruse.”


On this week's That's What They Say, English Professor Anne Curzan fills us in on the American Dialect Society's annual "Word of the Year" vote.

The fact that this year's selection was the first ever to be held virtually should give you a big clue about the winner. 


You’re probably familiar with the phrase “batten down the hatches,” especially if you’ve ever turned on the Weather Channel before a major storm. 

A colleague of Professor Anne Curzan recently asked us though, can “batten” pair with anything else? Good question.


Last week on That's What They Say, we talked about a peeve over "exasperate" getting used in place of  "exacerbate." This week, we looked at two more words that often get entangled, "trammel" and "trample."

Professor Anne Curzan ran across "trammel" while researching last week's show. While we're very familiar with things like "untrammeled access" or "untrammeled nature," "trammel" on its own raised a flag.

Some words sound similar but don't have anything to do with each other. Others sound similar and have everything to do with each other. 

When a listener asked us about "ornery," we had no idea that it fell into the latter category, alongside "ordinary." They do sound similar, but how are they related?


In the aftermath of Tuesday’s election, we found ourselves wondering about the history of “aftermath.”

A listener named Sybil Kolon put "aftermath" on our radar a couple of weeks ago. This past week, we noticed people from all over the political spectrum using it in discussions of a post-election world.


Our clocks fell back by an hour Sunday morning. As they did, a much-discussed usage issue once again raised its head.

Though most of us would agree the extra hour of sleep is nice, there’s contention over what we call this particular event.


When it’s “all downhill from here,” there’s some ambiguity about whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

A friend of Professor Anne Curzan recently pointed out that the issue with this expression is that it’s almost an auto antonym. That is, a word or expression that can mean its opposite.


Sometimes we get a language question that leads to another question. That question leads to another question, and before we know it, we’ve fallen down a language rabbit hole.

A listener recently asked us if the phrase “apple of my eye” can be plural. The answer is yes. You could call your children “the apples of my eye.” You and your partner could also call your children “the apples of our eyes.”

This got us thinking about other phrases where there’s a question about which part to make plural. Specifically, we started thinking about phrases like “father-in-law” and “brother-in-law.”


Currying favor has everything to do with flattery and horses, and nothing to do with food.

This expression, which means to seek or gain favor through flattery or to use flattery to gain a personal advantage, is an eggcorn that goes back 500 years.


Most people would agree that a lamb would make a terrible escape vehicle. All that bleating would instantly give away even the stealthiest of fugitives.

Fortunately, a spelling discrepancy clarifies that going "on the lam" doesn't mean riding away on a baby sheep. It does make us wonder though, what exactly is a “lam” anyway? 

 

We get a lot of questions about words that have two pronunciations. This week, we decided to look at two of those words: status and mischievous.


What do knockoffs, nicknames and the word "crummy" have in common?

The answer is not much, except that we've received listener questions about the origins of all three.


When you learned how to spell "secretary," did anyone ever tell you this trick?

"A secretary is someone who keeps a secret."

Though "secretary" probably doesn't turn up much in your day-to-day correspondence, this is still a decent way to avoid spelling it incorrectly. It's also true. 


Some grammarians say “only” is the most misplaced adverb in the English language.

We’re only telling you this because we love you. Or maybe we’re telling you this only because we love you. Maybe we’re telling you only this because we love you.

Actually, we just want you to think about the word “only.” Also, we love you.


Have you been droppin' your gs? Be honest. You probably do say "thinkin'" instead of "thinking" or "goin'" instead of "going" sometimes.

That's true for most speakers of English. In fact, both forms of words with "ng" endings have been around for hundreds of years.


A couple of things can clearly be two things. For many people though, a couple of things can include three or even four things. 

That's because the phrase "a couple of" has some elasticity to it.


Cars, planes, cameras and people have been zooming around for decades with a lower-case "z."

These days, with so many of us working from home, many of us find ourselves doing a different kind of zooming -- one that may require a capital letter.


What do eggs, Old Norse, semitrucks, and cleaners have in common?

Nothing that we know of, except that we talk about all of them in this week's That's What They Say. 


Languages are full of patterns. They're also full of words that break those patterns.

A listener named Dave Gee sent us a question about "eleven" and "twelve" which appear to belong in the pattern-breaking category. 

Auto-antonyms are words that can hold two, generally opposite, meanings at the same time. Once you know what they are, you’ll start to see them everywhere.

“Dust” is a good example. You can remove dust, like dusting a shelf, or you can add dust, like dusting a cake with powdered sugar. 

It's possible for phrases to work this way too.


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