‘Word nerd’ Anne Curzan makes English fun

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer
University of Michigan English and linguistics professor Anne Curzan records her weekly four-minute Sunday morning show on the English language, “That’s What They Say,” at WUOM-FM at Michigan Radio studios in Ann Arbor.

Anne Curzan wants everyone to know we’re all going to be alright.

And that will be the case, insists the UM English and linguistics professor, even if the younger generation can’t tell the apostrophe from a comma, engages in capricious spelling, and sees no difference between “it’s” and “its.”

Curzan, one of the rare linguists who makes the language fun and funny, expounds on English oddities and common confusions in her short show, “That’s What They Say,” every Sunday morning at 9:35 on WUOM-FM, Ann Arbor’s NPR station and part of the Michigan Radio network.

Recent segments, which run 4 minutes apiece, touched on the difference between “flaunt” and “flout,” as well as the origins of “ruthless.” (It comes from the verb “to rue,” and not, as is often asserted, the Old Testament story of Naomi and Ruth.)

“We discuss questions of usage and the history of words,” said Curzan, who started life as a self-described math nerd, before switching to linguistics.

“I’m trying to help people enjoy language variation — the slang and change they hear around them,” she said, “because this is human creativity at work.”

This isn’t to say Curzan, who serves on the official usage panel for the American Heritage Dictionary, doesn’t school her students in standard English.

Free-form punctuation, she notes, runs the risk of making that potential employer reading your resume “cranky” — one of Curzan’s favorite words — and tanking your chances for a job interview.

That said, she just doesn’t think the shifts we see today are anything new or a sign of accelerating intellectual collapse.

“People worry we’re losing critical distinctions in the language,” she said. “But when we learn about critical distinctions lost in the past, we just think those are interesting.”

Ben Franklin, for example, was scandalized by the use of “notice,” “advocate” and “progress” as verbs — indifferent, apparently, to English’s supple and admirable ability to convert nouns into verbs.

“We also used to say ‘The house is building,’ ” Curzan said, “but eventually that became ‘The house is being built,’ which was widely and soundly condemned at the time as terrible English.”

And she paints an amusing picture of the anguish some Old English speakers suffered when “girl” shifted from an all-purpose word for any child, irrespective of gender, to one denoting, well, just girls.

“And I’ve got hundreds of years of evidence,” Curzan said, “of the use of ‘they’ as a singular pronoun.”

Take that, purists.

Steve Schram, Michigan Radio executive director and general manager, calls “That’s What They Say” a hit — one he’s discussed as a possible feature on the national NPR feed.

In any case, the show certainly seems to have a strong local following.

When Michigan Radio sponsored “Grammar School,” a conversation with Curzan at an Ann Arbor bar last year, some 150 people showed up.

“We had a full house,” Schram said, “asking all sorts of questions.”


(313) 222-6021

Twitter: @mhodgesartguy

‘That’s What They Say’

9:35 a.m. Sundays

WUOM-FM (91.7)