Anne Curzan

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor 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, Anne 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.

Anne 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). She has also created three audio/video courses for The Great Courses, including "The Secret Life of Words" and "English Grammar Boot Camp."

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


It appears that as of today, there isn't much concern about the phrase "as of."


Perhaps that's because it's such a simple phrase. Two words, two letters each, nothing flashy.


But this is That's What They Say, and when Michigan Radio's chief engineer Bob Skon asked us about the distinction between the phrases "as of today" and "as from today," we had to check it out.


Recently, English Professor Anne Curzan was giving a talk in Washington about reduplication. In reduplication, a form is repeated in a straightforward way, like "no-no" or "boo-boo," or with a vowel change like "flip-flop" or "mish-mash."

During Curzan's talk, someone in the audience raised their hand and said, "You keep using the word 'reduplication.' Isn't that redundant? Why don't you just say 'duplication'?"

Fair question.

Even when it comes to the most interesting conversations, there's usually a routine to how they start and how they end.

Think of how your conversations usually start. Generally, you don't just walk up to someone or call them on the phone and immediately start talking about something specific.

You usually say something like "hello" or "hey" or "what's up?" to get things going. Sometimes you might even make your opener a question like, "Hi, how are you?"

Among the many odd things about standard varieties of English is the “s” at the end of “knocks” as in “She knocks on the door.”

If you were to change “she” to “I,” “you,” “we,” or “they,” the “s” would go away, and “knocks” would become “knock.” Why does third person singular tense get an "s" tacked on the end? 

If your life is in shambles, you probably have bigger things to worry about than grammar.

This week's topic comes from a listener who wanted to know the origin of "in shambles."

Soon after we received this question, a co-worker told us she was surprised to learn this phrase, used to refer to a mess or state of disorder, was originally "a shambles."

A few weeks ago on Reddit, someone posted a clip from the Ellen Degeneres Show. The guest was Candice Payne, the Chicago woman who rented hotel rooms for homeless people during last month’s polar vortex.

The post’s headline was, “Ellen gifts $50k to Candice Payne, Chicago woman who help over 122 homeless people during brutal cold winter last week.”

In the comments below the post, one user asked the question, “When did ‘give,’ the verb, give way to ‘gift,’ the noun, becoming the verb?

On behalf of a listener, this week we're raising the question of whether we can speak on behalf of ourselves.

Often at weddings, funerals and other gatherings, there's a moment when someone stands up and says something like, "On behalf of my family and myself, I want to thank you for coming today."

A listener named Suzanne wants to know whether "and myself" is necessary in this expression. She says, "You don't speak on your behalf. You are speaking."

The words and phrases that pop culture inserts into our everyday language never cease to amaze us here at That's What They Say.

A listener recently wrote to use about one in particular. Laurel wanted to know what we think about "nado" as in the movie "Sharknado."

Last week, we talked about how easy it can be to misinterpret an idiom, especially when a key word sounds very similar to another word.

Before we go any further, look at the following sentence and fill in the blank with the first word that comes to mind:

"Let me tell you, if you think that, you've got another ____ coming."

There's a set of questions that we as speakers use regularly and that we may not realize have their own special name. They're called tag questions, and they're everywhere.

You probably don't know what a tag question is, do you? You want to learn about tag questions, don’t you? That's probably why you're reading this column, isn't it?

By now you've probably figured out what a tag question is, right?

Sometimes we like to ask people what a particular word or phrase means to them. Sometimes when we do that, we get several completely different answers.

Take “out-of-pocket,” for example.

It's jarring when you discover that a seemingly harmless everyday word or phrase has an offensive origin story.

The Oxford Dictionary's blog has a list of nine words with offensive origins. You probably already know about a few of these, but others such as "no can do" and "long time no see" may come as a surprise.

One that caught our eye is "basket case."

The first citation of "basket case" in the Oxford English Dictionary is in 1919, soon after the end of World War I. It came from rumors about soldiers who had lost all of their limbs and had to be transported in a basket. 

If you think about the verb “dive” too hard, it can shake your confidence that you know which past tense to use.  

Let’s say you’re telling someone about a diving competition you participated in yesterday. Do you tell them you dived yesterday, or do you tell them you dove?

Not all verbs cause this sort of confusion.

Regular verbs like “play” have the same past tense and past participle – I play, I played, I have played. Irregular verbs like “drive” are a little trickier – I drive, I drove, I have driven.

For much of its life, “dive” was a regular verb – dive/dived/dived. But in the modern era, we English speakers created an irregular past tense – dove.

There are many things in life worth keeping unsullied or unsoiled.

From our good name to our best dress shirt, it's preferable to keep things safe from both literal and figurative sullying or soiling.

It would seem that "sully" and "soil" have a lot in common. So much so that a listener recently asked if they're related.

In fact, they are.

Sully comes from the French verb "souiller" which means to pollute or stain. That's the same meaning it had when it came into English in 1615, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Early on, "sully" takes on both physical and metaphorical meanings. 

At this point and time, it's pretty clear that the words "awful" and "awesome" aren't interchangeable. But why do their prefixes sound identical?

Our listener Kalen asks: “Why is ‘awesome’ a positive word and ‘awful’ a negative word?”

This is a great example of how two words can start in the same place and end up with quite different meanings.

Since both of these words meant “awe-inspiring” at one point in their lives, we should look at “awe” first.

“Awe” has changed meaning over time, which helps explain why “awful” and “awesome” have changed over time. Early on, “awe” meant fear or dread. Therefore, to be “awe-inspiring” meant to inspire awe or dread.

However, later on “awe” comes to mean respectful fear or reverence – for example, someone could be in awe of the dead. This shift affects “awesome” and “awful.”