Anne Curzan

That's What They Say

Anne Curzan is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English 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, Curzan 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.

Curzan 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).

When she is not tracking down new slang or other changes in the language, Curzan 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).

When was the last time you asked for a rain check? 

Maybe a store gave you a rain check for a product you wanted that was out of stock. Or maybe you invited a friend out to lunch, but they were busy and asked for a rain check.

If you've ever asked for a rain check, you're actually using a phrase that we can trace back to baseball and, surprisingly, chess.

Employee perks have become increasingly elaborate over the years.

Some jobs come with unlimited vacation time and months of paid parental leave. There are companies that offer a constant supply of free food. This place has on-site car wash facilities, bicycle repair, haircut services and spa treatments. 

It's a far cry from stale "all-you-can-drink" break room coffee and the occasional Hawaiian shirt day. 

Your job may not have the perks you crave, but don't worry. This edition of That's What They Say has several "perks" and zero detriments.

Our goal here at That's What They Say is to answer our listeners' burning questions about language. But here's an interesting question -- why are those questions burning in the first place?

Obviously, a question is not a physical object. You can't douse a question with gasoline, throw a match at it and watch it burn.

However, that's not to say there isn't something about a burning question that's hot.

The courtroom may not be the best place to ponder grammar and language issues. If you do find yourself in a courtroom, it's likely you've got bigger problems on your hands -- especially if you're the defendant.

Assuming you're a word nerd like us though, you may find yourself distracted by a grammatical question regarding the verb "to plead." 

There's no mystery when it comes to the present tense -- "I plead not guilty." But if someone asks you about your plea later, do you tell them you "pleaded" not guilty or "pled" not guilty?

There was a Sunday not so long ago when a listener noticed our own Professor Anne Curzan say "the days where" instead of "the days when." 

Judy wrote to us that she enjoys listening to the show and, for the most part, agrees with Curzan's approach to language and usage.

However, she goes on to reference our show about muckety-mucks and big wigs. Curzan said big wigs went back "to the days where in court, lawyers and the judge would have big wigs."

Judy was not impressed.

There are a few different ways to talk about retaliating against someone in equal terms. There's "an eye for an eye," "a tooth for a tooth," and "measure for measure," among others. 

These phrases are all pretty transparent. If you take my eye, I'll take your eye. If you make that move, I'll make this move.

But what about "tit for tat?" One of English professor Anne Curzan's colleagues recently asked us about this one, and it's no wonder -- the meaning isn't nearly as obvious.

Let's say you're sending someone an email, maybe to thank them for visiting you in the hospital. Would you say "I appreciate you taking the time to stop by" or "I appreciate your taking the time to stop by"?

Believe it or not, some people have pretty strong feelings about which of these sentences is correct. For many of us though, it's the kind of thing that gives us pause.

When it comes to spelling, we've all got a word or two that makes us absolutely bonkers.

It's no wonder. We've got a slew of silent letters. Instead of an f, we sometimes use "gh" or "ph." There are letters like c and k that make the exact same sound, except when they don't.

Let's face it, English isn't exactly known for consistency.

On the page, it looks like "indict" and "edict" should sound a lot alike. And yet, when you say these two words out loud, it's like being trapped in an episode of the Patty Duke Show

Don't feel embarrassed if you've ever mispronounced "indict" to sound more like "edict" or "verdict." Your only fault was the assumption that English always makes sense.

Why does our language insist on making things so complicated? In this case, the answer comes with some interesting stories about the history of spelling.

English doesn't use very many infixes, but that doesn't mean they don't exist. 

Here's the thing: they're out there, but most of them aren't fit for print or our airwaves. We'll come back to that. 

Wondering what exactly an infix is? Here's a hint -- they're related to a pair of other grammatical elements that may a bit more familiar. 

On this week's edition of That's What They Say, English Professor Anne Curzan joined us from Salt Lake City, Utah where she attended the American Dialect Society's annual meeting. 

Each year, the ADS gathers to choose a word that best represents "the public discourse and preoccupations of the past year."

Before we reveal the word that dominated 2017, we feel it's necessary to assure you that there's nothing false about this report.

If you're someone who likes to mull things over, consider this question our holiday gift to you.

When you mull something over, must "over" always be part of the equation? Or can you leave it out and simply mull something?

Take a second to mull that over.

There's examples all over the the place of people using "there's" before a plural noun. In fact, we just gave you one.

A listener named Bill from Kalamazoo recently wrote to us about this. He's noticed all kinds of people, including broadcasters, using "there's" in front of words that refer to multiple things such as "thousands" or "many" instead of using "there are."

He says, "As an old guy, it drives me crazy. Especially when said by a 'professional' who should know better."

Bill, all we can say is guilty as charged.

What scares the living daylights out of you?

Maybe it's watching a scary movie in the dark by yourself. Maybe it's that dog down the street who makes Cujo look like Lassie.

Or maybe it's the thought of Stranger Things not coming back for a third season. (Relax, it totally is.)

Have you ever wondered though, what exactly is a "living daylight"? The answer is kind of violent.

A new high school in Utah is worried about the plural form of their mascot, the phoenix.

Sure, "phoenixes" is perfectly innocuous. But parents were concerned about the other option: phoenices.

If you don't see the issue, go ahead and say that one out loud.

The school's principal said the team name would always be singular, similar to the Miami Heat or the Orlando Magic. Still, this got us wondering about other Latin plurals.

How many usernames and passwords do you have these days?

You've got email, bank accounts, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Paypal, Amazon, Snapchat, Nextdoor, Ebay and probably at least two dozen other accounts that aren't listed here.

Remembering all the information we need to access our devices and accounts is nothing short of a challenge.

On top of that, we've got a spelling issue to contend with.

One word or two? That's the question.

At least, that's the question a listener named Nancy posed to us this week. She wanted to know when "into" should be written as one word, and when it should be two. 

Nancy isn't the only one around here who's experienced grief over this everyday grammar quandary.

Suffice to say, we were happy to dig into this one. 

"Into" has a few meanings, but it basically indicates movement or direction. It can mean "toward the inside of" as in "she walked into the classroom." It can also mean "in the direction of" such as "I turned into the wind."

When you're trying to figure out whether "into" should be two words, the first question you should ask yourself is whether a phrasal verb is present. In other words, is the "in" part of the verb as opposed to being a preposition? 

Think about "turn in," as in what you would do with an essay:  "I turned my essay in to the teacher yesterday." 

On their surface, adjectives don't seem very tricky. They tell you what color, how big, how old, what shape, what size -- pretty simple stuff.

Given that simplicity, it seems like all adjectives should keep their meaning regardless of whether they come before or after the noun they modify. 

A beautiful sunset is always a sunset that's beautiful. A red rose is always a rose that's red. A fluffy cat is always a cat that's fluffy, barring some sort of ill-advised shaving experiment. 

Don't get too comfortable though, because true hogwash is not true.

English has a few great phrases for the people at the top of an organization.  

Depending on where you stand in the hierarchy, you probably have a few of your own -- maybe even some that aren't appropriate for a public forum. We'll let you keep those to yourself.

Instead we're going to look at a pair of terms that are fairly print and radio appropriate -- bigwig and muckety-muck.

The word "singular" doesn't raise any eyebrows when we're talking about grammar. However, there's some concern about how the word is being used outside the grammar world.

A listener named Brian recently wrote to us about the use of singular as "a pretentious version" of single. He was under the impression that singular only means single in the context of grammar, and otherwise means unique.

"However, just in the past year, I've heard [singular] used more and more often to mean single, usually in a more formal context. I wonder if the horse is already out of the barn on this one," he says.

Brian, we can't even see the horse at this point. 

In 2009, Lake Superior State listed "iconic" on its annual list of words to banish.

The list's authors say it was one of the most-nominated words that year. People calling for its banishment said "iconic" was overused, especially among entertainers and entertainment news.

Bryan Murphy of Fairfield, Connecticut said, "Just because a writer recognizes something does not make it an icon or iconic. It just means that the writer has seen it before."

That may be, but eight years after it was banished, "iconic" is still alive and flourishing in an ever-wider range of contexts.

One of the best things about putting together That's What They Say is getting to utilize Professor Anne Curzan's vast knowledge of English to suss out language debates.

That's why when a listener named Bill asked us if we had ever covered the word "utilize," we were surprised when we realized we hadn't.

'This is one that pundits, friends and colleagues have been concerned about for awhile," Curzan says.

There’s a rule that makes a clear distinction between “I shall” and “I will.” However, we as speakers don’t seem to respect that line.

Do you know where that line is? Actually, here’s a better question: Did you know this rule existed?

We found out from a fourth grader.




The time has come again for University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan to offer her opinion on another round of language disputes.

Every September the editors of the American Heritage Dictionary send a ballot to panel members, asking about usage issues.

Curzan and around 200 others are tasked with voting "yea" or "nay" on the way we've been using words like "cohort" and "hoi polloi."

Recently, two listeners, including one named Ruth, asked us what's going on with "ruthless." For starters, a ruthless action is one that's clearly without ruth, but can an action also be full of ruth?

The answer is  yes, something can be ruthful, but here's a better question -- have you ever actually used that word?

There's no need to be ruthful if your answer is no. In the Corpus of Contemporary American English, there are over 2,000 instances of "ruthless" and zero instances of "ruthful."

But ruthful wasn't always such a pariah.

A young listener named Cam recently asked us why "Mrs." has an "r" in it, even though it's pronounced "missus."

Great question Cam. Since "Mr." is pronounced "mister," it's pretty easy to understand where that "r" comes from, but the "r" in "Mrs." is a different story.

It starts with "mistress."

We know what you're thinking. All we're going to say is that mistress is a very complicated word, and we only have time for just a tiny bit of its etymology.

Evidence suggests that some people are throwing up their hands, and others are grabbing their dictionaries when confronted by the multiple forms of a word that describes someone who has graduated from a school.

We should point out that this "evidence" is purely anecdotal. But that doesn't mean it's not worth exploring.

So what do you call a former student? 

The conundrum here stems from the fact that there are two forms of the word in question, one masculine and one feminine. 

If you're a loyal watcher of the Today Show on NBC, you're probably familiar with weatherman Al Roker's catchphrase: "Here's what's happening in your neck of the woods."

That saying doesn't make much sense when you think about it, but it's probably one that you use or hear other people use.

Like a lot of sayings in our language, this one is pretty old and used to have a different meaning. When we talk about "neck of the woods" now, the neck is metaphorical and the woods are no longer required.

If someone asks you a question, and you find yourself struggling to answer, did you flounder? Or did you founder?

The answer is "flounder." But these two verbs sound so much alike and have such similar meanings, don't feel bad if you were wrong.

In fact, a listener recently asked us if we could clear up the confusion between "founder" and "flounder."

Few things are more telling of Upper Peninsula lineage than the distinct style of speaking known as "Yooper talk."

In her new book Yooper Talk: Dialect as Identity in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Grand Valley State University Professor Kathryn Remlinger explores the history and features of of this unique dialect.

Remlinger is careful to point out that there isn't just one U.P. dialect, that there are actually many ways of speaking. But there is a way of speaking that sounds undeniably Yooper.

Or at least, we want to believe there is.