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TWTS: Beneath the surface road

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We love it when listeners tell us about the language and grammar discussions they have with their families. Salomon Jost and his family sent us a question that popped up on a short road trip.

"On our way from Grass Lake to Chelsea on Old U.S. 12, our five-and-a-half year-old asked if we were on the highway yet. 'No we'll stay on the surface roads till we get there,' was the response," says Salomon. "I joked that [it was a] good thing we were staying on the ground."

That's when the Josts found themselves wondering, "Wait, isn't 'surface road' an oxymoron?" They knew exactly who to ask.

A standard dictionary will define a "surface road" as a "road or street level with its surroundings." In other words, it's a road that's on the surface of the earth. When "surface road" first came into being, it was used to describe a road that's on the surface, as opposed to a road that is elevated or underground, like a subway.

These aren't to be confused with "surfaced roads." This phrase describes roads that are smooth, usually because they've been paved with an asphalt emulsion or chip seal. However, this is distinct from "surface road."

One we found interesting about the Jost family's question is that it sets up a contrast between "surface roads" and "highways." You won't find this distinction in dictionaries yet, but it's out there.

For example, in an episode of the U.S. version of The Office, a character who's supposed to be driving to the hospital asks, "Highways or surface roads?" We found another example in a San Francisco Chronicle article that referenced the "clogged surface roads and freeways" of Los Angeles.

That's why Professor Anne Curzan thinks we should keep an eye on this one.

"We should be watching whether 'surface road' is changing its meaning, so that it's not a road that's on the surface, in contrast to things that are elevated or underground, but rather a road or street that's not a limited access highway."

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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.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of Weekend Edition at Michigan Radio. She also co-hosts Michigan Radio’s weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.