That's What They Say

Does an oxford comma clutter up a sentence? The debate rages on.
Rasmus Olsen / Flickr - http://bit.ly/1rFrzRK

Whether you love it or hate it, the oxford comma evokes some pretty strong feelings – both among people who study language and the rest of us. 

Why?

Pronunciation of the word divisive can be divisive.

Michigan Radio listener Connie of Grand Rapids wrote “I had always thought the middle syllable in this word was a long i, as in divided but I am hearing NPR hosts saying it with a short i, as in division.

Curzan and Miller admit they use both pronunciations.

“What we’re seeing here is a shift from what seems to be the standard pronunciation in a relatively short time frame – the last 15 years or so," Curzan says.

She checked with the American Heritage Dictionary usage panel, of which she’s a member, to see how they’re voting on this.

Professor confesses: "I'm a jaywalker"

May 8, 2016

University of Michigan English Professor Ann Curzan has a confession.

"I witness jaywalking on campus all the time and participate in the practice myself. I'm an impatient pedestrian," she admits. "When I lived in Seattle it was very difficult for me, because in Seattle people really do obey the crosswalks, but I struggled."

She'd never thought about where the word "jaywalking" came from until a friend's daughter asked about it.

"I found out it takes us back to another great word, that I hope we’ll be able to revive," she says. "It goes back to jay driver, and that shows up early 20th century, in a citation from 1905 in Kansas. Jay drivers were people who drove on the wrong side of the road," Curzan says.

We often don’t notice dangling or misplaced modifiers in speech, but they can unintentionally create some really funny images.

University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan was thinking about the grammar lessons she learned as a kid, and misplaced and dangling modifiers stuck in her head.

“In the grammar book that I had – this must have been junior high, late elementary school – there was this sentence: ‘Clinging to the side of the aquarium, Mary saw a starfish.’”

What if you've used a word your whole life, and then you find out nobody else uses it and you can't find it in standard dictionaries? Is it still a word?

That happened to University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan during a guest lecture recently when a student asked how many people need to know a word in order for it to be a real word.

It reminded her of a word her family's always used: Plogged.

As in "I'm so sorry I haven't responded to your emails, but my email box is plogged."

Are you getting fresh with us?

Apr 10, 2016

Two well-known company slogans have raised some grammatical hackles, based on their use or non-use of adverbs.

We know Eat Fresh comes from a restaurant.  

“You won’t be surprised I don’t have a problem with it, Curzan says, "but when Subway started using the slogan there were some folks who said, “we don’t like the grammar of that."

"The question was whether fresh was the right form to be used because people said, “I think you should have an adverb – like 'eat right.' Or 'eat well.' It raised this grammatical question of what exactly is fresh doing in Eat Fresh.

Holy moly! Holy Toledo! Holy whatsit?

Mar 13, 2016

Expletives may be considered uncouth, but we have to give credit where credit is due: They can also be pretty darn creative.

Anne Curzan, an English Professor at the University of Michigan, joins Michigan Radio’s Rina Miller once again to help us better understand one of the most prismatic examples of colorful language: the holy moly.

The holy in “holy moly!” isn’t quite the same usage that we see in, say, the “Holy Bible” or “the High Holy Days.” 

  Pacifier, binkie, dummy; we have lots of words for that funny little gizmo babies suck on when they’re teething. In the U.S., we use pacifier the most frequently, and while it might seem like the least funny of the set, the way we use it is kind of interesting.

“While we know theoretically that pacifiers can be people too,” says University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan, “it’s hard not to associate them with those little rubber gadgets for babies.”


You may not have much truck with trucks, but that doesn’t mean you’ll never truck some truck.

That sentence might be a little confusing, but it shows something that’s easy to forget: the word truck is pretty versatile. It’s almost like the Swiss Army Knife of the English language! But how does a word like truck come to mean so many things? What’s the story there?


If a stranger is blocking your view in a movie theater, how do you respond?

For many folks, the polite response might be, “Would you please move out of the way?” That’s because we use the word please to make requests sound polite, but there are times when a simple please just doesn’t sound gracious enough.  For some people, that sentence might even sound a little aggressive. What’s going with our language?

Fortunately for us, University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan is here to help us better understand the delicate ways of polite speech.


It's getting hammy in here

Feb 7, 2016

At the behest of a colleague, University of Michigan Professor Anne Curzan started poking into the history of ham. The word, that is.

“When you think about it, ham-handed is a really weird way to say something is clumsy or awkward,” says Curzan.

So how does a beloved lunch meat also become an idiom for the ineffectual?


Few words carry the cultural weight of a decade like the 1960s mantra, groovy. It can seem hard to separate the word from the period, but, according to University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan, the ‘60s were not the birthplace of the groove. Nor has the word always meant what we use it to mean today.


“You’re going to feel a little pinch.” We’ve all heard some variation of this phrase before, either at a doctor’s office or a clinic, and we all know what follows: some type of medically necessitated pain.

But is it just the shot that’s hurting us?

For University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan, the answer might be more than just the bloodwork. “Can the words we use actually affect the experience a patient has in terms of pain?” she asks.


The passive voice is infamous as a style choice that we’re supposed to avoid. But for University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan, this isn’t a rule that should be set in stone.

“The advice, ‘never use the passive voice,’” says Curzan, “is a bit too sweeping to be entirely helpful.”

It’s easy to take for granted, but we use some pretty curious words for clothing. Blazer? Galoshes? What’s the story there?

University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan, our resident expert on language, puts on her etymology hat to shed some light on what we call what we wear.


University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan has such a busy schedule, it's sometimes hard to find the time to produce our weekly "That's What They Say" discussion.

That led me to use the expression running from pillar to post, which in turn prompted a "hey, I wonder where that comes from" moment. 

We have lots of those moments, as do our listeners and readers, and that's why TWTS exists.

Where does the pillar to post reference originate?

Like spending a weekend binge-watching House of Cards, some things we do not because it’s the correct thing, but simply because it feels right.

As it turns out, pronunciation can be like this too.

“Sometimes what dictionaries and grammar books tell us is technically correct in the language doesn’t sound quite right,” says University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan. “Which can leave us in a bit of a bind.”

Savage, sloshed, and other slangy talk

Dec 7, 2015

There’s a lot of slang out there for things that are “good:” wicked, sick, even the word bad.

During one of her classes, University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan heard a new one (at least, for her): savage.

“So savage now means ‘good?’” asks Michigan Radio’s Rina Miller.

“Slang likes to turn things on its head,” says Curzan, “and make words that mean bad things, mean good things.”

Maybe that’s why we love to come up with slang words for the act of getting drunk.

You’ve probably heard of the word eavesdropping, but what about the word easedropping?

“Eavesdropping can be easy, which is why some folks now refer to the act of listening in on other peoples’ conversations as easedropping,” says University of English Michigan Professor Anne Curzan.

Is this an act of lexical wrongdoing? Or is it, perhaps, a stroke of creative genius?


We all admit to being a rabble-rouser once in a while, but no one wants to be a part of the rabble.

It’s even built into the language.

After all, how often do you see the word rabble without the word rouser attached to it?

“Not very often at all,” says University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan.

Much like some people, there are words that just don’t like to hang out on their lonesome.

If you attended a symposium in the 18th century, you likely did so with an "adult beverage" in hand.

Now, the word symposium strikes a different image: a group of academics talking research, nary an "adult beverage" in sight. Why the change of heart, academia?

Our own resident academic, University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan, is at hand to provide some needed insight into the language of academia.


The haziness of hung vs. hanged

Nov 1, 2015

Dorothy is a listener with a problem: The misusage of the words hung and hanged is killing her sanity.

For Dorothy, it seems like many people can’t tell the difference between the two words to save their lives. But, as it turns out, the distinction may be just that simple.

“The verb hang has two past tenses,” says University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan, “one of which is lethal.”


A toothsome question about teeth

Oct 25, 2015

What comes to mind when you think of something being "full of teeth?" For many people, it’s probably a creepy image, like a shark’s mouth or a root canal. But as it turns out, the English word “toothsome” means the opposite.

“It’s a good thing,” says University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan.

To understand why, we may have to rethink our understanding of the word “tooth.”

What's wrong with healthy eating?

Oct 18, 2015

Is it “healthy eating” or “healthful eating?” Is there even a difference?

For some people, there is. Anne Curzan, professor of English literature at the University of Michigan, is ready to lead us into the nuanced world of grammarians, where some distinctions are a little more complicated than they seem.


What's the word on shtreet talk?

Oct 11, 2015

When you say the word controversial, do you say “controver-shall?”

Do you say “frustra-shun” for frustration, or “shtreet” for street?  

If so, you’re not alone. But what the h is going on with those pronunciations? Is this a Michigan thing?

Those are the questions a listener posed for us today, and our own University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan is ready to help us sound out an answer. But in order to do that, we’ll have to take a close look at the mechanics of how we say what we say.


We're happy to have an enthusiastic word-nerd audience with lots of suggestions and questions.  

Douglas, who listens to us from Atlanta, wants to know about discomfit vs. discomfort.

He wrote: “I once was discomfited by discomfort, never discomforted by discomfit.”

University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan started digging.

Absolutely: Is that a yes?

Sep 27, 2015

Bob from Kalamazoo's been wondering about something: What's going on with "absolutely?" Does it mean yes, no, or something else?

University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan delved into the question.

"Luckily for us, there was a study in 2007 by Hongyin Tao at UCLA, who used four spoken databases of American English to try to figure out what's going on with 'absolutely.' He looked at two ways 'absolutely' occurs," Curzan says.

"One he called the "dependent absolutely." This is when 'absolutely' occurs before an adjective, as in 'absolutely right,' 'absolutely perfect,' or 'absolutely wrong.'

Are you champing – or chomping – at the bit?

Sep 20, 2015

It’s that time of year when University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan is asked for her opinion about all kinds of language disputes.

Curzan is one of about 200 panel members of American Heritage Dictionary, which sends out a user ballot every September.

This year one of the questions is: "How many syllables in the word 'miniature?'

Some people use four syllables, but the word is commonly pronounced with three, as in "mini-ture."

The skinny on shimmy and shinny

Sep 13, 2015

Let's do the shimmy today! Did you know that the name of the move you do with your hips comes from women's undergarments? In fact it might be a corruption of chemise, says University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan. 

Some think of shimmy as a dance, others as a maneuver to climb up something, but it gets confused with shinny all the time.

"A lot of people do now shimmy up trees, but it was originally shinny up," says Curzan.

There is nothing like a dame. Lady? Woman?

Sep 6, 2015

Chick. Woman. Lady. Gal. Kitten. Doll. It seems like there are over a hundred names for the opposite of the male sex! I call my mom a woman and my sister a girl. Both are over the age of 25. Why is it so difficult to decide what to call women? I mean girls. I mean …females?

Whether to say girl or woman could depend on who is using the term, says University of Michigan English professor Anne Curzan.  

Pages