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TWTS: Think hard before pointing out language quirks

There are so many interesting bits of language in the world, we can’t help but notice. The question is, when you notice someone saying something interesting, should you point it out?

Professor Anne Curzan started thinking about this after a conversation she had with a family member. This person is very proud of the fact that they pronounce “often” without the “t.”

Speakers dropped the “t” from “often” hundreds of years ago. These days though, some are putting that “t” back in. Curzan’s family member takes pride in having what could be considered the more historical “t-free” pronunciation.

That’s why Curzan had to bite her tongue during a recent conversation with said family member, in which they pronounced “often” with the “t.” Curzan wondered whether she should tell this person what they just said.

“I decided not to, because my life experience tells me that it’s very disconcerting to people if you stop midway [through a conversation] to point out the way they use the language,” she said.

We can probably all agree that having someone stop you to criticize how you said something or used a particular word is disconcerting at best and silencing at worst. Curzan has found that stopping someone because you’re excited about or interested in something they said can have the same effect.

In graduate school, Curzan was studying American dialects when she learned about a phenomenon linguists call “positive anymore.” That’s when “anymore” is used in an affirmative context with a meaning similar to “nowadays.” For example, “Gas is expensive anymore.”

Curzan was excited when she discovered her friend was a “positive anymore” speaker. Her friend was not excited when she pointed this out. To hear the story, listen to the audio above.

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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.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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