rina miller

Spelling bees just got a whole lot easier: simplified spelling

Mar 17, 2013

On this week's edition of "That's What They Say," host Rina Miller discusses our resistance to change the spelling of certain English-language words with Professor Anne Curzan of the University of Michigan.

Curzan says that this resistance comes hand-in-hand with complacence.

"In the end, people are quite attached to the spellings that they know. They've spent a lot of time learning those spellings, and we're used to the way they look," says Curzan.

So when it's suggested that "have" drop the e to "hav," and that "dogs" be spelled phonetically, "dogz," our comfort level drops out of equilibrium. But is there a happy medium between maintaining our comfy spelling rules and making spelling in English simpler? According to Curzan, such conventions have already been successfully implemented.

"Noah Webster, when he created his American Dictionary in the early 19th Century, he believed we should have an American language," explains Curzan, "and part of having an American language was having American spelling that would be different from British spelling."

Let's face it: profanities and taboo words are sometimes appropriate (and maybe even fun) to use. But does the same level of use apply to politicians or others constantly in the media spotlight?

On this week's edition of "That's What They Say," host Rina Miller discusses the convention of taboo words and profanities in everyday language with Professor Anne Curzan, specifically in response to John Boehner's recent remarks about the Senate.

Quote from Boehner:

"We have moved the bill in the House twice. We should not have to move a third bill, before the Senate gets off their ass and begins to do something."

The word "ass" is usually not spoken in front of the public eye; it's taboo. Following Boehner's statement, however, this word is coming out of the woodwork, as Anne Curzan describes.

"...you could sense that people were interested in what Boehner said, but also in how he said it. They were interested in that word."

Is it more acceptable than other profanities used by past politicians?

"When Vice President Joe Biden, and Vice President Dick Cheney both dropped 'f-bombs' in fairly public places, everybody referred to it as the 'f-word.' Nobody wanted to say the word, because that's a taboo word that we don't say," explains Curzan.

Persnickety, and other pronunciation problems

Jan 27, 2013

This week on “That’s What They Say” Michigan Radio’s Rina Miller and English Professor Anne Curzan discuss certain words that give people problems with pronunciation.

Everyone’s favorite word when being detailed, “persnickety” was originally spelled and pronounced “pernickety."

“'Pernickety’ goes back to 1808, and by 1892 we have evidence of speakers putting in the ‘s’ and saying ‘persnickety,’” says Curzan.

Other words that give people problems, such as “nuclear”, are usually mispronounced through analogy of other words that sound similar.

“Speakers are making ‘nuclear’ sound more like words such as ‘particular’, ‘circular’, ‘vascular’, ‘molecular’. We have a lot of those ‘cular’ words, not a lot of words that end with ‘clear,’” she says. 

-Austin Davis, Michigan Radio Newsroom

Is 'actually' the new 'like?'

Jan 20, 2013

This week on "That's What They Say," Michigan Radio's Rina Miller and English Professor Anne Curzan discuss the surging use of the word "actually" in recent years, and whether or not it has become the new "like."

Now part of everyday speech, Anne Curzan says the word "actually" in fact came to the forefront of American speech only just in the past century.

"It turns out the word 'actually' has more than doubled in usage over the 20th century."

But in recent years, the spoken use of "actually" has become even more pronounced.

"Between 1990 and today, so a little over 20 years, 'actually' has tippled its usage in spoken language, so it's no wonder that we're noticing it, and feeling like its everywhere," she says.

Merriam Websters’s definition of retronym is a term consisting of a noun and a modifier which specifies the original meaning of the noun. “Film camera” is a retronym.

Every Sunday, Michigan Radio’s Rina Miller talks with Anne Curzan a professor of English at the University of Michigan, specializing in linguistics.

In many cases the retronym is formed in response to technological advances.

“We now specify a land line because when you say phone people may assume it’s a cell phone and we need to now, talking about a phone, say a land line,” said Curzan.

Why do some people say, “I could care less” to mean they don’t care? It doesn't make sense. The expression is, "I couldn't care less," right?

“What has happened here, as far as I can tell, is that speakers are no longer parsing this phrase for every word. And this is what happens with idioms. Idioms take on a meaning that surpasses their parts,” says Anne Curzan, a professor of English at the University of Michigan.

“I think the ‘less’ there feels negative to speakers. It already says, ‘I don’t care,’ so for them, ‘I could care less -- I couldn’t care less,’ they mean the same thing,” she says.

Michigan Radio’s Rina Miller asks Curzan to explain this idiom, “Butter would not melt in her mouth.”

“People tell me that the pronoun ‘they’ cannot be singular. But here’s the thing - it already is,” says Anne Curzan. She’s a professor of English at the University of Michigan who specializes in linguistics.

Most speakers already use “they” as a singular pronoun in speech.

“In writing, we are told to use ‘he’ or ‘she,’ or change the whole sentence,” Curzan says.

English teachers have been telling us for years that “they” is not a singular pronoun. But, Curzan offers a few examples of indefinite pronouns that speakers make singular.

Merriam Webster has one pronunciation for the word lackadaisical, but often people pronounce it laxadaisical.

“I would guess that what’s happened here is that speakers have reinterpreted lackadaisical as related to lax. And once they do that they change the pronunciation of lackadaisical to laxadaisical” said Anne Curzan, a professor of English at the University of Michigan.

Curzan says in surveys she’s done, half the people say lackadaisical and half say laxadaisical, but it doesn’t seem to be because of generation differences.

It’s seems that the combination of the letter K and S is what causes the confusion. Another mix-up can be found in words like especially and espresso.

Less vs. fewer

Nov 4, 2012

“There are people who cringe at the grocery store when they see the sign '10 items or less,'” said Anne Curzan, a professor of English at the University of Michigan.

It seems as though the rule for less vs. fewer is becoming less clear.

She said, “The rule is that with nouns that are countable we should use fewer. And with nouns that we can’t count, such as water, we should use less.

“Ten items, clearly you can count them because there are ten, so it should be fewer. If you have money it would be less money, but fewer dollars.”

The principles are the same with amount vs. number, so amount for an uncountable noun, and number for a countable noun.

Open The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language and you will inevitably find Usage Notes under certain words. These notes warn readers there might be problems or controversies involving grammar, diction, or writing style.

Anne Curzan, a professor of English at the University of Michigan, who specializes in linguistics is 1 of 200 panelists asked to comment on the acceptability of particular usages and grammatical constructions.

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

Every Saturday Rina Miller talks with Michigan Radio's political analyst Jack Lessenberry about some of the biggest stories in the week's news. Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson was ordered to be in federal court this week, even though she asked someone else to speak on her behalf. Also, controversy surrounding Speaker of the House Jase Bolger (R) brings up the question of whether Democrats can be competitive for the Speaker of the House’s seat in November. Plus, a Detroit scandal involving Detroit Police Chief Ralph Godbee creates head ache for Mayor Dave Bing.

If you listen carefully you can hear sentences with a double "is" all the time.

President Obama does it. “The fact of the matter is is that…,” he said at the House Republican Conference on January 29, 2010.

Michigan Radio's Rina Miller talks with Anne Curzan, a professor of English at the University of Michigan, who specializes in linguistics.

You may have noticed more people are saying “you guys” to refer to just about everyone.

“Some speakers use ‘you guys’ but it depends on where you’re from,"  says Anne Curzan, a professor of English at the University of Michigan, who specializes in linguistics. "Southerners often use ‘y'all,’ which I think is a very useful pronoun. And in Texas, for some speakers, ‘y’all’ has become singular, and the plural is ‘all y’all.’  In parts of the East Coast, you get ‘youz,’ or ‘youz guys.’ In Pittsburgh they have ‘yinz,’ or ‘younz.'"

Taboo words can be so powerful they won’t be uttered.

Michigan Radio's Rina Miller talks with Anne Curzan, a professor of English at the University of Michigan, who specializes in linguistics.

According to Curzan, taboo words tend to cluster around matters such as sex, death, and religion. In fact “occupy” used to be one of those words.

“In the 17th and 18th century this word  fell out of use because it had sexual connotation,” said Curzan.

Listeners have pointed out that more people are using the word "so" in speech.

Michigan Radio's Rina Miller talks with Anne Curzan, a professor of English at the University of Michigan, who specializes in linguistics.

Curzan says, "These little words are called discourse markers. They're the words that help us organize conversations. Words like so, well, and you know, I mean."

The Capitol was vandalized early Thursday morning
user mattileo / flickr

In the Week in Review, Thaddeus McCotter's abrupt resignation last month means there needs to be a special election to fill his spot.

Also, Michigan's a popular place with presidential and vice-presidential candidates this week.

And, ballot petition mania continues, but can the average voter keep up. Michigan Radio's Rina Miller speaks with political analyst Jack Lessenberry.


 

If something can happen “on purpose,” then why not “on accident.” If you’re over 40, you probably say, “by accident.”

This week on That’s What They Say, we explore prepositions and other grammar oddities. Michigan Radio's Rina Miller talks with Anne Curzan, a professor of English at the University of Michigan, who specializes in linguistics.

This week on That’s What They Say, we explore gender stereotypes in job titles for women and men. Michigan Radio's Rina Miller talks with Anne Curzan, a professor of English at the University of Michigan who specializes in linguistics.

Curzan says the stereotypes come from our understanding of who does certain jobs.

CedarBendDrive/flickr

In this Saturday's Week in Review, discussions over font size take up time in the Michigan Supreme Court, the Senate tackles legislation that would more closely regulate abortion providers, and Gov. Snyder plans to go back to China. Michigan Radio's Rina Miller speaks with Political Analyst Jack Lessenberry.

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