That's What They Say | Michigan Radio
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That's What They Say

Consider the banana. Actually, consider the top banana, because that's the phrase that someone recently brought to our attention.

Professor Anne Curzan says a friend told her she loves the phrase "top banana" because of its theater etymology. 

"I wanted to nod wisely at that moment, like I knew that piece of information, but in fact, I did not," Curzan says.


You're lying in bed on one of the hottest nights of the year. Fortunately, you've got a nice, quiet fan on top of your dresser to keep you cool while you sleep.

Suddenly, that fan starts making a noise akin to an angry Rottweiler. You try turning it off and on. You try shaking it. You even try pleading with it, but nothing you do will quiet that fan.

It can't be denied. That fan is on the fritz.


Today it's politicians who sometimes get criticized for being wishy-washy, rather than the soup getting criticized as wishy-washy.

Let's back up a bit.

A listener named Sheryl Knox posed an interesting grammar question recently, but what really caught our eye was this line at the end the email: "Why are people so wishy-washy?"

While we can't answer that particular question, we can certainly take a closer look at "wishy-washy."


If you totally don't drink alcohol, you could call yourself a teetotaler.

A listener recently asked us about the spelling of "teetotaler." They wanted to know why the beginning is spelled "tee" and not "tea," like the drink?


Sometimes people send us questions that we avoid trying to answer. We don't do this to be mean.

The problem is, some questions we get have answers that are too long and complicated to explain within the confines of this segment.

This week though, we're throwing caution to the wind. We're finally going to tackle "between you and I."


Have you ever heard someone describe the United States and another English-speaking country as “two countries separated by a common language?”

A listener named Randy Miller wrote to us recently about some of the language differences he encountered while living in England.

There were words like “lorry” and “lift” that many of us already know, but Miller also found there were “embarrassingly different meanings of some words, like suspenders and pants.”

One difference that Miller found particularly striking has to do with the verb “to table.”

Few things can shut down an outdoor swimming pool faster than a good old-fashioned summer thunderstorm.

English professor Anne Curzan is a longtime swimmer who swims in a master’s program. Recently, one of her coaches emailed another swimmer about holding practice at an outdoor pool, as long as it wasn’t “thunderstorming.”


While harps make beautiful music, most of us would agree there’s nothing beautiful about someone harping on something.

Our listener Kalen Oswald recently asked, “If the harp is historically famous for its soothing music, going all the way back to the Old Testament, then why do we say someone is ‘harping’ on us when we are being nagged or irritated?”


We love it when people send us grammar jokes. One that is passed around quite a bit has to do with the construction "where's it at."


Your challenge this week is to try and avoid using the construction "try and."

Why, you ask? Because we get a lot of questions from listeners about this particular construction and whether it's wrong. 

We can try not to use it, but "try and" is very idiomatic. Also, there isn't really a good reason to avoid it.


Sometimes a not-so-great experience can be made just a bit better if you have an excellent slang phrase to describe it.

We think "take the L" falls right into that category.


Apparently, "in and of itself” is the source of some concern about redundancy. This phrase wasn’t actually on our radar until a listener brought it up at our most recent Grammar Night event.

The listener wanted to know whether the phrase is redundant. Why would you need to say “in and of itself” when you could just say “in itself”?


When someone asks you to “take a listen,” it’s usually meant as a friendly invitation. But not everyone wants to take a listen.

Several listeners have asked us about this phrase, including one who wanted to know whether it’s grammatically correct.


Pronouns are on the front burner of language change at the moment. As such, we get a lot of questions about them.

For example, a listener recently asked if you should say, "They are going to the store," or "They is going to the store," when referring to one person.


The word “pique” recently piqued the interest of one of our listeners.

Colin Williams wrote to us after seeing the phrase, "As the president's pique became increasingly evident..." in a New York Times article.

Williams says: “I’ve heard that something can 'pique your interest,' but the noun version is definitely new and different to me.”

The Rio Grande is certainly a grand river. But not everyone thinks it's grand enough to be called "river" twice, as in the Rio Grande River.

In case you're not up on your Spanish, saying “Rio Grande River” is redundant, since "rio" means "river." This phrase falls into one big category of place names that contain a word or phrase borrowed into English from another language.


Grammarians sometimes worry about whether you can count the things to which a noun refers.

And no, we're not talking about "less" and "fewer."

Have you ever heard of the "needs washed" construction? That's when the verb "need" is followed by a past participle like "washed" or "fixed" without "to be." For example, "That dish needs washed."

Two listeners recently wrote to us about this. One says she started to hear it when she moved to Michigan and the other after moving to northwest Ohio.

Both say it's driving them crazy.

There have been a lot of studies of "needs washed" as a regional feature in American English. While the epicenter seems to be western Pennsylvania, particularly Pittsburgh, it can also be found in portions of Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and West Virginia.

We get tons of great questions about language from our listeners. The problem is we only get to answer one or two per week.

This week, we're doing things a little differently. We give you the That's What They Say lightning round. 

In writing, punctuation makes it easy to see when the writer is quoting someone else. What's interesting is that we've figured out a way to incorporate that punctuation into our speech.

This week's topic comes from a listener who asked about saying "quote" before a quote and "unquote" at the end. He thinks "end quote" makes more sense than "unquote." While there's certainly an argument to be made about which closing is more logical, the truth is that "unquote" is now more popular than "end quote."

Some of us can't resist muttering or shouting our language's strongest words in moments of anger, pain or shock. However, we also realize there are situations that require us to keep our vocabulary clean.

Fortunately, there's a variety of alternatives to choose. From "gosh" and "darn" to "fudge" and "fiddlesticks," there's a G-rated euphemism to suit just about any situation.

When it comes to versatility, we think that "heck" really stands out.

It appears that as of today, there isn't much concern about the phrase "as of."

Perhaps that's because it's such a simple phrase. Two words, two letters each, nothing flashy.

But this is That's What They Say, and when Michigan Radio's chief engineer Bob Skon asked us about the distinction between the phrases "as of today" and "as from today," we had to check it out.

Recently, English Professor Anne Curzan was giving a talk in Washington about reduplication. In reduplication, a form is repeated in a straightforward way, like "no-no" or "boo-boo," or with a vowel change like "flip-flop" or "mish-mash."

During Curzan's talk, someone in the audience raised their hand and said, "You keep using the word 'reduplication.' Isn't that redundant? Why don't you just say 'duplication'?"

Fair question.

Talking about the weather can be about so much more than sunny days and stormy nights.

Last week, we talked about the subtle routines we follow when opening and closing a conversation.

This week, we decided to look at the interesting roles weather can play in those routines.

Even when it comes to the most interesting conversations, there's usually a routine to how they start and how they end.

Think of how your conversations usually start. Generally, you don't just walk up to someone or call them on the phone and immediately start talking about something specific.

You usually say something like "hello" or "hey" or "what's up?" to get things going. Sometimes you might even make your opener a question like, "Hi, how are you?"

Among the many odd things about standard varieties of English is the “s” at the end of “knocks” as in “She knocks on the door.”

If you were to change “she” to “I,” “you,” “we,” or “they,” the “s” would go away, and “knocks” would become “knock.” Why does third person singular tense get an "s" tacked on the end? 

If your life is in shambles, you probably have bigger things to worry about than grammar.

This week's topic comes from a listener who wanted to know the origin of "in shambles."

Soon after we received this question, a co-worker told us she was surprised to learn this phrase, used to refer to a mess or state of disorder, was originally "a shambles."

A few weeks ago on Reddit, someone posted a clip from the Ellen Degeneres Show. The guest was Candice Payne, the Chicago woman who rented hotel rooms for homeless people during last month’s polar vortex.

The post’s headline was, “Ellen gifts $50k to Candice Payne, Chicago woman who help over 122 homeless people during brutal cold winter last week.”

In the comments below the post, one user asked the question, “When did ‘give,’ the verb, give way to ‘gift,’ the noun, becoming the verb?


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