Grammar Moses: Head over heels and other head-scratchers

  • Simone Biles does a flip on the balance beam during the women's U.S. Olympic gymnastics trials in St. Louis. The phrase "head over heels" was originally the more logical "heels over head," according to

    Simone Biles does a flip on the balance beam during the women's U.S. Olympic gymnastics trials in St. Louis. The phrase "head over heels" was originally the more logical "heels over head," according to AP File Photo/June 27, 2021

Updated 5/14/2022 5:52 PM

Things often don't sound right to me. But then I have this column, so perhaps I'm predisposed to being picky.

Bill McLean wrote to tell me of a few head-scratchers:


• What I hear: "I live in the suburbs."

• What I think: I live in Palatine, one suburb.

• What I hear: "Want to go to the movies?"

• What I think: Don't people usually go to see one movie?

• What I hear: "Tom Brady, under center ..."

• What I think: A QB doesn't look up when he's about to receive a hiked ball. A QB stands behind a center.

• What I hear: "I'm head over heels about (something joyful)."

• What I think: My head is over my heels now. My face is straight now. I am not agog about anything now.

First, Bill must have a lot of time on his hands to do all of that thinking. I rarely think that much in a week.

"I live in the suburbs" would be something you'd say to someone who lives in Chicago, because many Chicagoans I encounter feel anything west of Woodfield is Iowa. If you were talking to someone you knew to live in Mount Prospect, you're more likely to say, "I live in Palatine," assuming that person has some knowledge of the suburbs.

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"Want to go to the movies?" is something I would ask, not because I want to enjoy the experience of "the movies" but because I wanted to leave open the possibility of catching two flicks. If my wife is willing to go see one movie with me, I might as well go for broke and see if she'd like to see two. Once, early in our marriage, when air-conditioning was a luxury, I persuaded her into sneaking into two after paying for the first show. By the end of that triple feature, I could barely remember the first film.

As I mentioned, "the movies" describes an experience. It's a giant screen, a reclining chair, hot popcorn, a communal experience and a slippery floor.

That also could describe my streaming Netflix in the man cave downstairs with a cat on my lap. But you know what I mean.

And I love to go to "the movies."

As for "Tom Brady, under center," I might quibble with your assessment. Tom Brady's hands are "under" the center, or large, sweaty parts of the center. And one could argue that Brady's hands are critical to his performance. Come to think of it, this might be why quarterbacks command such big bucks.


When he's not "under center," he's in the shotgun. Of course, using these terms is much more useful in the context of a radio broadcast, because you can't see where the QB is standing.

As for "head over heels," tells me the original phrase was "heels over head," which makes a lot more sense to me. When one is head over heels, one has fallen -- not down, but in love. The phrase was changed to its current order several hundred years later.

We've got this?

Carolyn Carlson writes: "There is a sign that has been outside our neighborhood school. It wouldn't bother me so much, but it's a school and I'm pretty sure their grammar is wrong. The sign reads:

"We got this!" referring, of course, to the COVID-19 crisis.

Doesn't "got" always need a helping verb? For example, "We have got this?"

Carolyn: I blame the "Got milk?" advertising slogan that spawned "Got coffee?," "Got chocolate?," "Got brains?," and quite possibly the South Korean boys band GOT7.

"Have you got milk" isn't much better. Why? Because "got" is superfluous.

Why not simply "Do you have milk?" or, if you must abbreviate it, "Have milk?"

Write carefully!

• Jim Baumann is vice president/executive editor of the Daily Herald. You can buy Jim's new book, "Grammar Moses: A humorous guide to grammar and usage," at Write him at and put "Grammar Moses" in the subject line. You also can friend or follow Jim at

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