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That's What They Say

"Nonplussed" is one of those words that historically doesn't have a particularly complicated meaning, but it's one that people frequently misuse. 

In fact, the definition of "nonplussed" has become so muddled over time, people often use it to mean the complete opposite of its actual meaning.

Again, the definition of "nonplussed" is pretty simple, so why all the confusion? You could say there's a prefix to blame. 


Leave it to a political reporter to come up with a question that's both intriguing and extremely relevant to an election year. Michigan Radio's Rick Pluta, who also co-hosts It's Just Politics, came to us with this question:

"I see how we get from 'president' to 'presidential,' from 'congress' to 'congressional' and from 'legislator' to 'legislative,' but how do we go from 'governor' to 'gubernatorial'? Are governors historically 'goobers' or is it something else?"  

Considering that Michigan voters will head to the polls this November to elect a new governor, this question about one of the many oddities of English couldn't be more timely.


Idioms generally don't get clearer the longer you think about them. They simply mean what they mean.

For instance, have you ever thought about the phrase "get someone's goat"? You may already know that it means to annoy or anger someone, but why?

Our advice is don't spend too much time on this phrase -- it'll just get your goat.


When you write emails, what are your preferred greetings and sign-offs?  There are a lot of options, and your choice probably depends on the nature of the email. 

Sunday can be an excellent time to stay home and potter about. But not everyone is a potterer. 

Some of us are putterers who'd rather spend our spare time puttering around the house. And some of us like to putter about but are open to pottering around.


It's no trifle that we received two emails within two weeks about the word "trifle." The first one came from a listener named Matt who writes:

"Something insignificant is often described as 'a mere trifle.' At the same time, something that could be very challenging is said to be 'nothing to trifle with.' How did we end up with such different meanings for the same word?"

As English Professor Anne Curzan was researching Matt's question, a colleague who also wanted to know more about trifle sent her an email with the subject line "Because I'm triflin'." 

Coincidence or kismet? We're pretty sure it's the latter.


An eggcorn is a word or phrase that occurs when someone re-interprets a word in a way that makes sense and allows them to understand its components.

For example, someone might say "all intensive purposes," when what they really mean is "all intents and purposes." Or "escape goat" instead of "scape goat."

Anne Curzan has been thinking about an eggcorn she heard on the radio recently. During an interview, a person said "halfhazard" instead of "haphazard." 

It's an it's easy mistake to make. Does anyone actually know what a "hap" is?


As designated word nerds, we here at That's What They Say whole-heartedly admit that sometimes we do things in our spare time that are a bit, well, geeky. But also pretty fascinating.

For instance, English Professor Anne Curzan has been been working on a project that traces changes in the New York Times style guide. She's been perusing stylebooks from the beginning of the 20th century to the present to see what has changed over time.


We use contractions such as "can't" or "shouldn't" all the time in our writing. There are a few though that we use in speech but probably wouldn't write down.

For example, if you read that last paragraph out loud, do you actually say "there are" or do you squish the words together as a contraction -- "there're"?

Here's another question: Would you ever use "there're" in writing? Probably not, but many of us wouldn't have a problem using contractions like "can't" and "won't.  

So why do some contractions get a pass but not others?


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.


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