Embrace The English Language Like Never Before

A Live Chat with Professor Anne Curzan, Professor of English

On September 8, 2016, Professor Anne Curzan sat down for a live Q&A session with her fans from across the globe. The chat is over, but the transcript is posted below for you to enjoy.

Image of Professor Ann Curzan
Professor Ann Curzan

CURZAN: Hello to All. I’m delighted to get to geek out about the English language with you for the next hour. I look forward to your questions. So let’s get started!

mpjakublec: Is it just a lack of conviction or does the use of the phrase, “I don’t disagree” seem to be more acceptable today? I typically respond with, “So you agree?” and the person looks befuddled!
What is your opinion and what is the appropriate response?

CURZAN: I just checked the Google Books Ngram Viewer, and you are absolutely right: there is a dramatic increase in the use of “I do not disagree” in American English since the 1970s or so. I think that “I do not disagree” is different from “I agree”: one could not have an opinion yet or not yet agree (but not disagree!). I think perhaps the person saying that is opening up space for further discussion. Perhaps you can persuade them to agree! And yes, I just used a singular ‘they’ there. Happy to discuss!

LARRY: To me it means “You might be right but I’m not convinced”

LARAINE: Do you think the pace of change in the English language is increasing, and if so, what role does our digital environment play?

CURZAN: That is a great and very hard question. Honestly, we don’t know if the pace of change is increasing right now. We know that there are some factors that can speed up language change, such as contact with other languages. One thing the internet is doing is bringing English into contact with hundreds of languages around the world, and we know that different Englishes are developing around the world (that has been happening for several centuries). I am very interested in the conventions that have developed in texting language (it is not chaos–there are clearly conventions in play). My sense is that what we’re witnessing is the development of a new written register; it is not clear just how much impact it will have on spoken language in the long run.



RAMIRO RAMIREZ: Hello professor Anne, I am interested in studding and viewing your course “How conversation works.” what would be the most important benefits that a person can gain by practicing the lessons?

CURZAN: I think one big benefit is becoming more aware of the subtle dynamics in play in the conversations we have every day. As you become more aware, you can be even more thoughtful about the choices you are making. For example, how do you want to handle that complicated apology?

Another key point in the course is that conversations involve work, and conversations work best when everyone involved is sharing the “conversational burden.” We all know what it is like if you are the only person asking questions and the other person is just giving you yes/no answers. You feel like you are having to do all the conversational work–and it isn’t nearly as much fun as a conversation where everyone is pitching in (when it tends not to feel like work at all).


DON DEB: Could you explain the recent increase in “between you and I” and where it comes from? I’ve even heard a possessive version a couple of times, e.g, “John and I’s book.”

CURZAN: I have also heard “John and I’s book”–and I’m fascinated by what is happening grammatically there. Constructions like “between you and I” are older than many people realize: you can find examples in Shakespeare, for instance. And this question is related to the one above about “me and my brother.” Let me explain…

English used to have grammatical case: all nouns used to take inflectional endings that marked their grammatical function in the sentence (e.g., subject, direct object, possessive). With nouns, we have lost all of these inflectional endings except for plural -s (or -en) and possessive -s. So nouns no longer mark subject vs. object. …

Personal pronouns still mark the distinction between subject and object and possessive (e.g., I/me/mine). Or at least most of them do! The pronoun “you” no longer does, and we all have managed to deal with that collapse of the distinction. When the grammar gets more complicated, as it does with a conjoined construction (e.g., “me and X” or “X and I”), we are seeing more variation between the subject and object forms. I think it is helpful to think about this as part

TED: I thoroughly enjoyed your course, “The Secret Life of Words,” as well as the linguistic course offerings of Professors John McWhorter and Natalie Schilling. I am, in other words, a linguistics junkie, without being a linguistics professional. In all these courses and in all my perusing of linguistics material, I have never come across any discussion of the following issue. And that is the ubiquity of the epithets “sort of” and “kind of.” I realize that these phrases act as qualifiers in normal speech and writing when the author is not entirely certain of the absoluteness of his or her attribution. But I’m talking about the pervasive use of these phrases approaching the level that “like” attained some decades past. I hear it A LOT on NPR during interviews of musicians, critics, artists, and other such members of the intelligentsia. It is to me the erudite version of “like.” Whereas “like” has been studied and even shown to have some useful linguistic function, I have never seen a comparable discussion of “sort of” and “kind of.” Thanks for taking the question.

CURZAN: Ted, I’m happy to say that there have been some studies of “sort of” and “kind of” as qualifiers; linguists have been interested in, among other things, how those two words have come to work as one unit. I think you are right to see “sort of” as a hedge. Sometimes linguists will talk about hedges as opening up “dialogic space”–in other words, by hedging my opinion, I am opening up space for your opinion too. That said, there can be times when we don’t.


LARRY: Might we talk about the affirmative “no”? I have written about it (tangentially in an article about another issue), but I wonder if it is still alive in modern speech and writing.

CURZAN: Sure! First, I want to clarify what we’re talking about here. When someone says “no,” it means no. We know this is really important when we’re talking about issues like date rape. There is then the construction “No, I know,” though, and there “no” seems to express that the person is affirming that they agree (or know); in some ways it expresses that the other person doesn’t have to explain further.

LARRY: I am referring to instances in middle and early modern English in which “no …[object]” means “a [obect]”. There are numerous examples in Mallory and perhaps a few in Shakespeare and contemporaries. For example, Malory wrote that “the kynges … had no joye to recyve no yeftes of a berdles boye” (and many more instances). See OED def. I.1.b to “No” as anm adf. It is also possible that Shakespeare made use of this formulation. See note 6 in my article at 12 SHAKESPEARE 148 (Routledge 2016).

CHARLES (CANADA): “No” in India, for example, is only the beginning of a negotiation. No is usually accepted as a final answer in European speaking countries, but I have experienced the opposite as we involve other cultures into our European and North American communities.

DAVID: Where do you stand on the move toward “lay” where we once used “lie”? “I was layin’ there” sounds like fingernails on a blackboard to me, but I’m a fuddy-duddy.

CURZAN: My feelings on this continue to change. A key moment for me was when I realized that I say “lay low” as often (or more often, if I’m honest) than “lie low.” Technically it should be “lie low,” but that doesn’t sound quite right to me. These two verbs are historically related, which is why the past tense of one (lie/lay) is the present tense of the other (lay/laid). I am not sure how this one is going to play out in the end. [Side note: I discovered a couple of years ago that many of the undergraduates in a class I was teaching did not know the word “fuddy-duddy”! Perhaps needless to say, it made me feel like a fuddy-duddy.


COGNITOR: Do you think the millennials have allowed text messaging to alter spelling and grammar?

LOVESCHOOLS: Yes, just like normal evolution has allowed the same since the birth of language.

CURZAN: I have learned *a lot* from undergraduates about what is happening in texting, and here’s the punchline: it is not chaos. There are some new spellings, but what I’ve seen over the past few years is that text spelling is becoming more standard as more and more people are on phones with autocorrect. Perhaps most interesting to me is the way punctuation is getting repurposed to capture tone and other contextual cues. So, for example, the period is now serious or even angry. The ellipses can

TED: interesting to see that you wrote “a lot” rather than the frequent “alot.”



TED: Not sure what griddlecakes are.

LARRY: They are surely different in England where flapjacks are a sugary treat. In the U.S. they seem to be the same.

CHRIS: Is the definition of officious changing to “official-like”?

CURZAN: Chris, thanks for the question. I don’t know–and now I am going to look into it. I appreciate people putting these kinds of possible changes on my radar. I wouldn’t be shocked if this is happening for some speakers. Stay tuned! I might well end up talking about what I find on “That’s What They Say” on Michigan Radio.

LARRY: I think so; “officious” will probably go the way of “enormity.”

DAVID FITZELL: I have one other question. Having recently moved to the Orlando area, I noticed a large local mall is called “Millenia” as a plural of millennium, I guess, but the spelling seemed odd so I looked it up in the OED. The word doesn’t exist. Is it cool now to misspell?

CURZAN: It seems like a nonstandard spelling to me too. Hard to know what the folks who named the mall had in mind. One could argue, though, that the namers of mall succeeded at some level: you noticed the name, remembered the name, and even brought the name of the mall to others’ attention!

AZBERT: You make a convincing case that changes to English are a natural evolution. At what point do academics and the Funk & Wagnalls of the future have to push back against destructive changes? (Love your courses.)

CURZAN: Thanks for the kind words about the courses! I think a lot about this as a linguist who studies language change and an English professor who tries to ensure that students control the conventions of formal, standard, edited English. Honestly, I don’t see any changes in language as inherently destructive: “destructive” is in the eye of the beholder, and as a historian of the language, I know that changes people hated a couple of centuries ago now to seem to us completely standard. I like to think about this in terms of repertoires. The bigger your linguistic repertoire is as a speaker and writer, the more versatile you are. This can mean controlling informal and formal varieties of the language, nonstandard and standard varieties. What I like about this model is that it moves us away from talking about some kinds of language as universally or inherently “better” than others.

RICHARD TRACY: If possible briefly, can the worldwide English language of today be interestingly compared to the language as it was in 1945, perhaps indicating the sorts of events that happen within a language whose native speakers must gradually assume a broader responsibility for influencing geopolitical events outside of their traditional boundaries. That is, could English be validly thought of as a type of modern Latin?

CURZAN: With the internet, English has now spread around the world in a way we have never seen before (e.g., much more widely than Latin ever was). At the same time, the internet is also

Anne Curzan at the Anatol Rogers Memorial Lecture
Anne Curzan at the Anatol Rogers Memorial Lecture

allowing languages other than English to spread around the world. Five hundred years ago, few would have believed that English would become a global language, and I try to keep that in mind as we think about what the future might hold. One interesting thing to keep in mind is that there are now more speakers of English

SAUL T: Do you proof your text messages?

CURZAN: As I said below, I’m a fuddy-duddy, so the answer is yes! I also have learned from students that I can use the * to correct a typo if I catch it only after I have sent the text.

THE GREAT COURSES: Thank you so much for joining us today. A special thank you goes out to Professor Curzan for taking the time and providing us with such insightful answers to your questions. We would love your feedback on the chat this evening and hope you will join us for future chats with our Great Courses instructors.

CURZAN: It’s been a pleasure to chat with you all. Thanks for the terrific questions. It’s always great fun to talk with other people who care so much about language. ~Anne

Dr. Anne Curzan is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English at the University of Michigan. She earned a B.A. in Linguistics from Yale University and an M.A. and a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature from the University of Michigan
Her lecture series The Secret Life of Words: English Words and Their Origins is now available to stream Wondrium.