Grammar 101 with Michael Kwan

No one said that the English language made a lot of sense. After all, it’s mostly a mash-up of other languages, taking inspiration from Germanic sources, Latin sources, and all sorts of other places. That’s partly why English idioms are so confusing and the same thing can be said about the little words too. Like up and down.

The topic for today’s Grammar 101 comes from a casual Twitter exchange I had with Ray Ebersole. In that conversation, I started by saying that I thought I was “coming down” with something. As an idiom, this meant that I thought I was falling ill. Ray then asked why the saying is to “come down” with something and not to “come up” with something.

Well, to “come up” with something is an idiom with an entirely different meaning. It means to rise or to manifest something, usually in the context of “coming up” with an idea. You might also say that a certain topic “came up” in the course of a conversation. That’s quite different than saying that you are sick, even if you are literally “coming up” with something as a result.

And that exchange with Ray got me thinking. When you are expressing interest in participating in an event, you can say that you are “up” for that. At the same time, saying that you are “down” with that also expresses interest or agreement. Are you up for bowling this Saturday? Sure, I’m down.

In much the same way, the expression “what’s up” has the same fundamental meaning as “what’s going down.” They both mean to ask what is happening or what is new within a certain sphere. Again, this seems awfully contradictory, but up and down are effectively equated here.

Thankfully, many English idioms only travel in one direction. If someone wants you to give them something, then can tell you to “cough it up.” If someone is making you feel angry or frustrated, you could say that they are driving you “up the wall.” If someone is forcing an idea on you, it would be appropriate to say that the idea is being shoved “down your throat.”

Do you have a favorite English idiom? Or perhaps a saying that you never quite understood? Please share via the comments below.