All posts by Anne Curzan

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‘The Dictionary’

look it up 2 copyDespite my best efforts, I still catch myself using the phrase “the dictionary,” as in “If you look that word up in the dictionary, you’ll actually find. … ” Or, “I need to look that word up in the dictionary.”

I grew up with “the dictionary.” It was a phrase that I heard at home to refer to several different dictionaries scattered around the house (including a very tattered one that must have been 20 years old by the time my sisters and I were using it), and my parents weren’t fussy about…

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Done and Finished

baking-cake-tipThe title might suggest that I am following up on Ben Yagoda’s informative post on the expression done and done, but instead I am revisiting one of my mother’s grammar bugbears.

When my sisters and I were kids, at the end of dinner, we at least sometimes described the postmeal state of affairs this way: “I’m done.” And then we would ask to be excused from the table. My mother would remind us, “Cakes are done, you are finished.” Or, she would tease us: “Are you ready to come out of the oven?”

I w…

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The Fun of It

grammar fun copyWhen I was invited to give a talk at Aquinas College on singular they, I barely finished reading the invitation before saying yes. It never crossed my mind that a lecture on this kind of grammar topic might seem like a recipe for the pedantic or dull, until friends teased me about it later. (As Lingua Franca readers can imagine, given my multiple posts on the topic, I have at least an hour’s worth of thoughts on this pronoun and what is at stake in using it — or prohibiting its use.)

The talk ha…

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Just Try That With Your Bootstraps

Dr_Martens,_black,_oldIdioms mean what idioms mean. I get that. So at this point, “pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps” means to improve one’s situation or succeed through one’s own efforts, without outside help. But the fact that pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps is, in reality, impossible, is too telling a part of this phrase’s origins to ignore.

I mean, try it. If you have boots with bootstraps, hold onto those loops at the top of the heel and try to launch yourself upward. You can’t do it. You need …

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How Dangerous Are Danglers?

starfish-purple-color-420x280I don’t remember many grammar lessons from junior high school, but for whatever reason, one sentence from the lesson about dangling and misplaced modifiers has stuck with me. Here’s the sentence: “Clinging to the side of the aquarium, Mary saw a starfish.” Poor Mary! It is exhausting to have to cling to the side of an aquarium that way.

Now, of course, if we heard this sentence, we would probably assume it was the starfish clinging to the side of the aquarium, as this is the most logical and sen…

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A Language Museum?

Franklin_School

Franklin School in Washington, D.C. (Image via Wikimedia Commons.)

The question mark was to get your attention. As of last Wednesday, we can change it to a period: A language museum.

On January 25, the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development in Washington, D.C., announced that the historic Franklin School has been approved for development into a museum called Planet Word. The project is spearheaded by — and privately funded by — the philanthropist and former reading …

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Words of the Year 2016

Dumpster fire copyHow do you capture 2016 in a word? That is the question we wrestled with on Friday evening at the Word of the Year vote at the annual meeting of the American Dialect Society. We ended up with a compound because one word just wasn’t enough for 2016. As I have done for the past few years, I wanted to fill you in on the results in multiple categories (and there are some new ones this year) as well as highlights from our discussions of various words; the final vote counts are available on the ADS we…

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A Means to a Question

means copyLast week I was writing a memo (as I am known to do when I am wearing my administrative hat), and I suddenly found myself contemplating the grammar of a phrase I had never before given a moment’s thought to. (And no, it did not involve a preposition stranded at the end of a sentence–I already know how I feel about that.) Here is the sentence that captured my attention:

I want to make sure that the [X] fund is on your radar as a means to support your research.

“A means to?” I thought. “Or a…

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Researching ‘Research’

research program 1Some pronunciation shifts are squarely on my radar. For example, I feel like I am hearing more and more people pronounce the noun program with a schwa in the second syllable. For me, the second syllable sounds like “gram”; for these other speakers, it sounds like “grum.” Both the Merriam-Webster online dictionary and the online American Heritage Dictionary provide the schwa-ful “grum” pronunciation as a second variant for the word program, but the Oxford English Dictionary online has yet to incl…

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Thanksgiving Victuals

Thanksgiving ClipartThis week many of us are thinking about or shopping for Thanksgiving victuals. If, that is, we are people who use the word victuals. Otherwise, we’re thinking about or shopping for food.

The word victual(s) is on my mind not because it is Thanksgiving week but instead because a Lingua Franca reader mentioned the word in response to my column about spelling reform and supercede/supersede. The anonymous commenter noted that the spelling supercede probably wasn’t going to be the end of civilizati…