That's What They Say | Michigan Radio

That's What They Say

The 1967 song "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" was one of Frankie Valli's biggest hits.

It's been covered by dozens of artists, including rapper Lauryn Hill. Listeners of a certain age probably remember Heath Ledger's interpretation in the 1999 romantic comedy "10 Things I Hate About You."

This song is also one of the first things we thought of when a listener asked us about the construction "off of." 

When we wet our whistle at a bar, we have a "wh" in whistle but not in "wet." 

That fact spurred an argument in the comments section of an article we found last week. The author had used the phrase "wet your whistle," but some commenters argued it should've been "whet your whistle.

An eminent person can also be a prominent person. That same person can also be preeminent in their field. 

A self-described “confused” listener recently asked us whether there’s a difference between an eminent scientist and a preeminent scientist. And where does "prominent" fit in?

As Professor Anne Curzan tells us, the distinctions here are few.

This week, we have got to address a question a listener recently sent us about whether there's anything wrong with saying "have got to" instead of just "have to."

The short answer is no. However, there people are who see "have got to" as redundant, and that's why this gets a little complicated.

An evening of drinking beer and talking about grammar? Yes please.

Last week, we were thrilled to dust off our pint glasses and host another Grammar Night for Michigan Radio's Issues & Ale @ Home series. 

Grammar Night is always a lot of fun, and we get a lot of great questions. We can't get to them all, but we appreciate each and every one, including Harvey Pillersdorf's question about "each and every." 

Today we’ll dispose of not one but two listener questions. No, that doesn’t mean we’re going to throw their questions away. It means we’ll use the information we have at our disposal to answer them, so to speak.

Starting with a question about “disposal.”

To know or to beknow? That is, well, not actually the question. However, there is some debate over whether something is “unbeknown” or “unbeknownst.”

Listener Randy Miller brought this up after coming across “unbeknown” in a piece in a major newspaper.

If you have an older sister, you can also have an elder sister. However, if you have an older house, you don’t also have an elder house. We’ll talk about why in a bit.

As to why we’re even talking about “older” and “elder,” a listener recently asked us to settle a debate.

Issues & Ale @ Home:
That's What They Say
Wednesday, June 23, 2021 - 7:00 PM

A Michigan Radio Virtual Event - Free

Does it drive you crazy when someone uses "literally" to mean "figuratively," or "impact" as a verb? Join University of Michigan English professor and Dean of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts Anne Curzan and Michigan Radio’s Rebecca Kruth, the hosts of That’s What They Say, for this fun evening discussing our changing English language.

During the pandemic, many of us have spent much of our time at home cleaning out closets, basements and garages, getting rid of things we no longer use or need.

Sometimes editors of dictionaries have to do the same thing. When new words are added, obsolete words get scrapped to make room.

We're talking about print dictionaries, of course: actual books with pages. Books that will keep getting bigger and heavier if cuts aren't made.

It can be helpful, as well as potentially confusing, to have vague expressions of time such as “by and by.”

The more we thought about this expression, the more trouble we had trying to think of how we even use “by and by.”

Sure, it shows up in poetry and music, but those contexts don’t exactly lend themselves to everyday use.

In honor of tax season, Merriam Webster recently tweeted the origins of “mortgage.” It’s derived from two Old French words meaning “death” and “pledge.”

Though "death pledge" probably sounds about right to some of you, others might be wondering how "mortgage" ended up  with such a dark origin story.

We're not exactly sure what effect the internet and other changes in technology are having on English. It could be that changes in the language are speeding up.

What we do know is that English is spreading around the world in a way we've never seen before. In the process, it's coming into contact with languages all over the world.

As we've seen in the past, language contact is one of the things that can speed up language change.

It's clearly different to talk about a large country and the country at large, but these two meanings of "large" are historically related.

A listener named Edward Kudla recently wrote to us with a "large question." Edward wanted to know about the various ways we can use "large" including, "I wear a large shirt," and "the escaped convict is at large."

By and large, we were glad to look into “large.”

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. 

If someone tells you to leave your keys on the dash, you probably know right where to leave them -- on top of the panel in your car that displays controls and information, i.e. the dashboard.

A listener recently pointed out to us that the "board" part of this compound sort of makes sense, but what's going on with "dash"?

It's tempting to assume it has something to do with speed, but that's not the case.

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.

The words "exacerbate" and "exasperate" look and sound very similar. That could explain why people sometimes say "exasperate" when they mean "exacerbate," as our listner Judy Nikolai  has noticed.

"Once or twice I've even heard reporters or interviewees on NPR employ what I believe is this incorrect usage," she says.

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?