language

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?

Crime-fighting term is still going gangbusters

May 29, 2016

Things can now be "going gangbusters" because of a WWII-era radio crime-fighting drama with sirens and gunfire and other loud noises.

"Gangbusters is a great word which I had not thought very much about until one of our listeners wrote in and said ‘There’s an interesting word for you to talk about,'" says University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan.

"Then I started hearing the word everywhere, and realized it was on my radar. Gangbusters goes back to what it sounds like it might go back to, which is a gang buster, someone who busts gangs."

Terrance Heath/flickr / http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

Are you unable to resist making judgments about the person who makes a grammar mistake?

Ah, wait till you hear about some interesting new research from the University of Michigan.

It gives us some insight into the personality of the critic.

Robin Queen is professor and chair of the Linguistics Department at the University of Michigan and co-author of the new study along with Julie E. Boland, professor of psychology and linguistics. 

Wikimedia user Brian Ammon / http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

The Next Idea

When looking at the modern world of innovation or business, you really can’t ignore China.

The country’s influence is huge, but interacting with Chinese companies, educators or officials can present a tough challenge for native English speakers: Mandarin Chinese is so fundamentally different from English, especially in tonal inflections.

Catherine Ryu is a Michigan State University researcher who is working with a team of students to develop a new game that could help English speakers learn Mandarin.

John Keogh/flickr / http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

We commonly use the pronouns “he” and “she” to refer to someone, but what if that person doesn’t identify as male or female?

The Washington Post recently gave a green light to using “they” as a singular pronoun.

The gender-neutral title “Mx,” pronounced “mix,” is making its way into dictionaries.

The issue of generic pronouns may be fresh in our minds, but according Anne Curzan, University of Michigan English professor, it’s one that’s been on the table for a while.

The Rust Belt is home to the Inland North accent
wikimedia user Uwe Dedering / http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

We Michiganders tend to think of ourselves as having no accent, instead speaking with a perfect, neutral broadcast voice. But according to Ted McClelland, that’s not the case.

In his piece for BELT Magazine, McClelland argues that we in the Midwest speak a strain of English that’s shaking up millennia-old conventions.

Anne Curzan
University of Michigan

It’s nearly the end of the year, and we’re seeing all sorts of end-of-the-year lists, including Word of the Year.

Anne Curzan is an English professor at the University of Michigan and co-host of That’s What They Say, and she joins us today to go over some of the words in the running for Word of the Year.

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?


Anne Curzan
University of Michigan

Have you noticed that there are two pronunciations for the articles “a” (“uh and “ay”) and “the” (thuh and thee)?

Do you pronounce the word “often” with or without the “t”?

In this Stateside interview we explore pronunciation issues with Anne Curzan, University of Michigan English professor and co-host of That's What They Say along with Rina Miller here on Michigan Radio.

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.”

Emily Fox / Michigan Radio

Anishinaabemowin is the language that was spoken by tribes in Michigan for millennia, and it’s near extinction in the state.

Many Michigan tribes don’t have any fluent speakers left, while those that do are only reporting between one to three fluent speaking elders.  

Michigan tribes are doing what they can to bring the language back.

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.'

Our hearts are in the right place when we use the word "innovation," but we may have ruined it for ourselves
flickr user Missy Schmidt / http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

The Next Idea

It’s not too hard for many of us to think of words that are just used so much that instead of summoning up a powerful image, they trigger a bored eye roll.

One such word is actually a very big part of The Next Idea: “innovation.”

When used correctly, “innovation” means so much. For companies and universities, entrepreneurs and inventors, it means everything.

But the word is now so overused it tends to get lost in the white noise of corporate buzzwords.

Emojipedia / http://emojipedia.org/unicode-9.0/

The recent announcement that new emojis are coming to a keyboard near you in 2016 caught our attention. The emoji powers that be (and yes, that exists!) are now deciding which new ones will make it onto our keyboards next year.

On this Martin Luther King Day, let's consider the 2014 Word of the Year from the American Dialect Society.

Other groups around the world offer up their Word of the Year choices. This one comes from the nation's top grammarians, language enthusiasts and linguists, including our guest today, Sonja Laneheart.

Laneheart is a professor of linguistics at the University of Texas-San Antonio. She did her masters and PhD at the University of Michigan.

Certainly the reading clerk and deputy clerk of the Crown would approve of us bringing these words back.
UK Parliament / Flickr

Every year, the Word Warriors of Wayne State University come out with a list of the top 10 words that deserve to be spoken and written more often.

Chris Williams is with Wayne State University in Detroit and he joined us today.

You can listen to our conversation with him below.

Twenty years ago, radio in Michigan was dominated by WJR-AM, which had the strongest signal around. You could get it nearly anywhere in the state. The station’s signature personality was the legendary J.P. McCarthy, who was an amazing interviewer.

Politically, I suspect he was conservative, but it was hard to tell; he interviewed politicians of all flavors with decency, courtesy and wit. But then, J.P. suddenly died.

Today, he has been succeeded by the sort of ideological slashers who have given talk radio a bad name.

John Pollack says it's important to tell true analogies from false ones.
user: RCB / Flickr

We use analogies every day. Yet we rarely think about them. They're just part of our vocabulary and our speech. 

But for John Pollack, analogies are not something to be ignored.

Pollack is the author of the new book Shortcut: How Analogies Reveal Connection, Spark Innovation and Sell Our Greatest Ideas. He believes analogies often have big consequences on how we view the world.

For example, Pollack says there are a lot of analogies that ring true that actually turn out not to be true. 

Pollack mentions the case of the "domino theory" President Eisenhower used in 1954.

The analogy convinced Americans that if they didn't intervene in Vietnam, democratic governments across Southeast Asia would topple like dominoes.

While the analogy translated something complex and far away into everyday language, it falsified the situation: When U.S. forces withdrew from Hanoi in defeat, the neighboring countries didn't topple like dominoes.

Uncles have avuncular, what do aunts have?

Jul 13, 2014

Uncles have their own adjective in avuncular, but aunts don’t have any such adjective.

On this week's edition of That's What They Say, host Rina Miller and University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan explore adjectives related to family members.  

“Paternal related to fathers, maternal for mothers, fraternal for brothers, sororal, which is not a really common adjective but it’s available in the language related to sisters. You get filial related to sons and daughters, and then parental for parents,” says Curzan.   

She also points out that these adjective that come from Latin often feel more formal than their Germanic synonyms.

“What we are seeing here is a wider pattern in the English language where we have these synonyms where one is borrowed like paternal or maternal and one of them is a native English word. It’s a Germanic word that’s been in English since English has been around. And often the native English word will feel warmer to us. It will feel closer to us and the borrowed one will feel a little bit more formal.”

Listen to the segment above.

user: dbphotography / Flickr

This week, State of Opportunity's Jennifer Guerra explored language and discrimination. She talked to Robin Queen, a linguist who teaches a class about it at the University of Michigan.

From Guerra's story:

Queen says people often think there's one right way to speak, what linguists call Standard American English, or "The Standard," and everyone else is doing it wrong.

"Who gets to decide they can police someone else's language?" asks Queen. "I mean, when did we get to this point that shaming people for their language is fine?"

Remember the George Zimmerman trial last year? You probably read headlines about it somewhere, or maybe watched coverage of it on TV.

If you got to hear any of the testimony, you may remember Rachel Jeantel. She's a young, African-American woman who was the primary witness for the prosecution, and was on the phone with Trayvon Martin on the day he died. 

When Jeantel began speaking, people both in and out of the courtroom focused on the way she spoke.

Why? 

Check out Guerra's piece. You can watch testimony from the Zimmerman trial and read about a study from MSU on language and discrimination that has some surprising results. 

-- Lucy Perkins, Michigan Radio Newsroom

Ifmuth / Flickr

LANSING – The terms "mental retardation" and "mentally retarded" will be removed from state laws under legislation being sent to Gov. Rick Snyder.

The bills incorporate a recent recommendation from a mental health commission appointed by Snyder. The bipartisan legislation strikes references to outdated language from various statutes and replaces them with terms such as "developmentally disabled" or "intellectually disabled."

The legislation unanimously passed the House and Senate this month and was approved by the Senate for delivery to Snyder Tuesday.

Democratic bill sponsor Sen. Rebekah Warren of Ann Arbor says it's "a fundamental first step" toward "ensuring everyone in our state is treated with the dignity and the respect they deserve."

The contraction of the word “of” to o’ is considered highly informal, but the phrase “o’clock” is somehow different. 

This week on That’s What They Say, host Rina Miller and University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan discuss how we talk about time.

The expression “o’clock” comes from “of clock” as in “according to the clock,” says Curzan.

It might seem like an antiquated phrase, but "o'clock" is still used quite a lot.  But, there is something else on the rise and that is the use of a.m. and p.m.

Maybe polar vortex has not been a welcome addition to all of our vocabularies, but there are some other great weather words out there.

In this week’s edition of That’s What They Say, Host Rina Miller and University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan discuss regional words to describe the weather.

Depending on where we live, we use different names for a "light snow." According to the Dictionary of American Regional English, some speakers call this a skiff or a skift. However, in the Midwest and on the East Coast, people are more likely to use the terms dusting or flurry.

Writers online, and now speakers in informal speech, are using "because" in innovative ways.

This week on That’s What They Say, host Rina Miller and University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan talk about the American Dialect Society's 24th Annual Words of the Year vote. 

Curzan says, “It used to be that because had to be followed by a clause. So, I would say, ‘I don’t want to go outside because it’s really cold.’ And now I can say, ‘I don’t want go outside because  cold.’”

More words of the year include: selfie, Obamacare, and slash.

Click here for more on the Word of the Year for 2013.

Ever wanted to learn Ojibwe? Well, there’s an app for that.

The Ojibwe, also known as Anishinaabe people, make up one of the largest groups of Native Americans in the United States, with many living here in Michigan.

Darrick Baxter, president of Ogoki Learning Systems, helped design this free app that could go a long way towards keeping the Ojibwe language alive. 

Here's a video showing how the app works:

Listen to full interview above. 

It seems hard to believe that if you put 8 buffaloes in a row, you can get a grammatical sentence.

On this week’s edition of That’s What They Say, host Rina Miller and Professor of English at the University of Michigan Anne Curzan talk about homonyms, or words that sound the same but have different meanings. 

Obviously, saying buffalo 8 times in row does not sound like a sentence. But, technically the sentence is grammatically correct although not readily understandable. It helps to recognize that we are talking about buffalo the animals that happen to be from the city of Buffalo. These buffalo sometimes buffalo as a verb. The verb buffalo can mean to outwit, bully, or trick.

If we substitute buffalo for the words bison and trick, the sentence will go like this:

Tricky plural words

Aug 11, 2013

The word data is plural in Latin. But that etymological fact may not make it plural in English at this point. 

On this week’s edition of “That’s What They Say,” host Rina Miller and Professor of English at the University of Michigan Anne Curzan talk about whether the word data should be plural or singular.

English borrowed the word data from Latin in which it is plural, the singular is datum. But, in scientific technical writing you will see data very often as plural.

"Many speakers have reinterpreted data as singular, as a mass noun much like information, so then you’ll see data is. The good news is for those of us who use it as a singular, and there are a lot of us, is that that is becoming more and more accepted, and in fact at this point if you look at the American Heritage Dictionary and the usage panel note on this, only 23% of the usage panel still rejects data as a singular," explains Curzan.

Listen to the full interview to hear more examples of making tricky words plural, including syllabus, focus, alumnus, and hippopotamus

Australian Government

A new language has been discovered in a remote aboriginal community of Lajamanu in the Northern Territory of Australia.

Dr. Carmel O’Shannessy, a linguist at the University of Michigan, first discovered the new language while studying in Lajamanu. The language spoken there is Warlpiri – an aboriginal language unrelated to English.

Over the last decade O’Shannessy has documented the emergence of “Light Warlpiri” or Warlpiri rampaku in the region.

On this week’s edition of “That’s What They Say,” host Rina Miller and University of Michigan Professor Anne Curzan revisit regional variations in spoken English and offer up even more fun and often puzzling expressions. 

“For people who are from parts of New York or New Jersey, they will stand on line rather than in line...and for the people who say that makes no sense, the answer is that prepositions don’t always make sense and this is just regional variation," says Curzan.

Another expression that may not make sense to most of us is: drinking a cabinet.

“If you’re from Rhode Island you can drink a cabinet…in Rhode Island, a cabinet is a milkshake," Curzan explains.

Okay, so what to you call those balls of dust hiding underneath the bed? Dust bunnies or woofinpoofs?

The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE)  has documented over 170 different variations for those balls of lint. And, some variations take on hilarious names.

Graduate, then commence onward

May 5, 2013

Where are you graduating from? Or are you just graduating? On this edition of "That's What They Say," host Rina Miller and Professor Anne Curzan discuss the mishaps with the proper use of "graduation."

There's been a good amount of change around the verb graduate, explains Curzan.

"It used to be that the University was supposed to graduate you...in the nineteenth century we started to get that students could graduate from the university."

Before you graduate from a university, or just graduate, you've got to matriculate. But what does matriculation actually mean?

"Matriculation technically means, 'to enroll in or at,' and you'll often see it used that way, but there appears to be some confusion. People sometimes use matriculate to mean graduate," says Curzan.

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