Expressions add colour to our communications, and while most are used correctly, some have become contorted versions of their former selves.
Here are some common expressions that have suffered unintentional abuse. Note that the phrases on the left are incorrect, the ones on the right are correct.
1: It’s a doggy-dog world vs. It’s a dog-eat-dog world
If it’s really a “doggy-dog world,” then the world must be literally going to the dogs. However, if it’s a “dog-eat-dog world,” then the underlying meaning intended is that people are merciless and will do anything to their own kind to get to the top.
2: Waiting with baited breath vs. Waited with bated breath
If you’re “waiting with baited breath,” then you are really saying that you are waiting after having just consumed fish bait. The word “bated” comes from the word “abate,” which means “to lessen or reduce.” So, if you are so excited that you are barely breathing, then bated breath is your best choice.
3: Pawn off vs. Palm off
“Palm off” means to “pass something by concealment or deception.” As in a card game, where the dealer surreptitiously delivers a novice player a low card. While pawn shops may have some shady exchanges, the original phrase had nothing to do with buying a gold chain in a second-hand store.
4: Slight of hand vs. Sleight of hand
“Slight” refers to something “small in degree or inconsiderable.” The word “sleight” is related to the word “sly,” and means “deceitful craftiness or dexterity.” Unless you meant to say that the magician had tiny hands, the correct terminology is “sleight of hand.”
5: Take a different tact vs. Take a different tack
Unless you plan to change your manners in social situations, the correct usage is “take a different tack.” This is a sailing metaphor. To tack is to change the direction of a sailing vessel by shifting the sails and turning the bow into the wind.
6: Mute point vs. Moot point
“Mute” means “incapable of speech.” “Moot” means “debatable or doubtful.”
7: Blessing in the skies vs. Blessing in disguise
While it could be possible that a blessing may come from the skies, most of the time, when people say this they mean that even though things don’t seem to be working in your favor, later you will look back and see the hardship as a benefit, or “blessing in disguise.”
8: Wreck havoc vs. Wreak havoc
To “wreck” means “to put something in the state of chaos.” The word “havoc” means chaos. So, if you say, “This dreadful weather will wreck havoc on our outdoor party!” you are literally saying that the weather will create chaos out of chaos. It’s redundant. However, “to wreak” means “to cause something to happen.”
9: Escape Goat vs. Scapegoat
A “scapegoat” in today’s society is someone who may be innocent, but gets blamed for another person’s actions. The word originally comes from a Hebrew religious practice: During the Day of Atonement, the high priest confessed the sins of the nation of Israel over the innocent goat. The goat was then driven into the desert to carry the sins of the nation as far away as possible.
10: Curl up in the feeble position vs. Curl up in the foetal position
Feeble means weak and frail. So in a way, curling up in a feeble position isn’t too far off. However, the actual foetal position that people are referring to is the curled up position that foetuses use while in the womb.
11: Wet your appetite vs. Whet your appetite
You can’t “wet your appetite” unless you find a way to dunk ravenous hunger in a liquid substance. Instead, the word “whet,” which means “to sharpen or hone,” is correct. When you “whet your appetite,” you sharpen it or make it more intense.
12: Tow the Line vs. Toe the Line
The origins of this idiom come from the military. It is thought to mean the practice of arranging one’s feet on a line for inspection. So, literally, to put one’s toe on a line to be examined for a certain standard. It does not mean to pull a line along with you.
13: Peak or peek my curiosity vs. Pique my curiosity
I don’t want you to peek at my curiosity like some kind of pervert, or to climb to the peak of my curiosity like it’s a mountain. However, if you would like to pique, or stimulate, my curiosity, than you have my rapt attention.
14: Expresso vs. Espresso
I’m sure those of you who work at coffee shops have had people order an expresso. There’s no such drink. The drink you’re trying to order is an espresso.
15: Pour over vs. Pore over
“Pore” means “to study closely.” You don’t really want to pour any kind of liquid over your reference books.
16: On tender hooks vs. On tenterhooks
“On tenterhooks” is a phrase that means “to be kept in a state of suspense.” A tenterhook was a medieval tool used for making cloth. These small hooks hung fabric that was stretched for the manufacturing processes, so the cloth was literally “left hanging.”
17: To give someone free reign vs. To give someone free rein
Some people think that to “give someone free reign” means that they are allowed royal power to do whatever they want, like a king reigning over his subjects. However, originally, it came from the days when people rode horses; when a horse encounters tricky terrain, the rider often loosens the reins to allow the horse to navigate on its own and trusts the animal’s judgement. So, the correct usage is to give someone “free rein.”
18: Fit as a fiddle
This is another phrase where the meaning has changed over time. “Fit” in this context doesn’t mean “healthy”, since many people could be in a good physical health but still have other problems. Its original meaning was “suitable or as appropriate as can be.”
This expression is still used in phrases such as “being fit for a king.” In the 16th century, it was originally “as right as a fiddle.”
19: Nip it in the butt vs. Nip it in the bud
Nipping something in the bud means that you’re putting an end to it before it has a chance to grow or start. Nipping something in the butt means you’re biting its behind.
20: I could care less vs. I couldn’t care less
Saying that you could care less about a topic implies that you do care about it at least a little. What you usually mean is that you don’t care about the topic at all, hence “I couldn’t care less”.
21: One in the same vs. One and the same
When you really sit and think about it, “one in the same” doesn’t mean anything at all. The correct phrase “one and the same” means that two things are the same.
22: You’ve got another thing coming vs. You’ve got another think coming
This is one of those phrases where the incorrect usage actually does make sense and has become its own phrase. But it’s still technically wrong. In fact, most people don’t even know the correct phrase unless they look it up. The correct version really only makes sense if you use the entire sentence “if that’s what you think, you’ve got another think coming.”
23: Each one worse than the next vs. Each one worse than the last
Unless you can foresee the future, “each one worse than the next” doesn’t make sense. The problem with this phrase is that it isn’t logical. For example, you can’t compare two bicycles until you’ve tested them both. So logically, you would compare the current bicycle to the last bike you tested.
24: On accident vs. By accident
Sometimes I feel very sorry for people attempting to learn English. With phrases like this, it must be awful. You can do something on purpose, but not on accident. Prepositions are a killer.
25: Statue of limitations vs. Statute of limitations
Whenever I think of these two phrases, I get reminded of one of the best Seinfeld episodes ever.
26: For all intensive purposes vs. For all intents and purposes
You may feel very strongly and intense about your purpose, but that doesn’t make the phrase correct. Another common incorrect use of the phrase is switching the words “for” and “with”. The correct phrase means that you are covering all possibilities and circumstances.
27: Extract revenge vs. Exact revenge
When you extract something, you’re taking it out of something else. When you exact onto something, you’re dishing it out. Therefore, extracting revenge on someone would mean you’re taking out that person’s revenge. Exacting revenge onto them means that you’re taking your revenge out on them.
28: I’m giving you leadway vs. I’m giving you leeway
Leadway actually isn’t even a word. Leeway means extra space and freedom.
29: Aks vs. Ask
You don’t aks/axe for things. You ask for them. I’m not sure when the “s” and “k” got switched but it happens all the time when people talk.
30: Momento vs. Memento
Momento isn’t a word. A memento is a keepsake.
31: Irregardless vs. Regardless
Regardless means without regard. Throwing on “IR” to the beginning makes the word a double negative. I think we can all agree that “without without regard” doesn’t make sense.
32: I made a complete 360 degree change in my life vs. I made a complete 180 degree change in my life
People say they’ve made a complete 360 degree change in their life to imply that they’ve completely changed from the way they used to be. However, going 360 degrees means that you’ve returned to the exact same place you started. Which would mean you didn’t change at all. A 180 degree change would mean that you are the complete opposite which is what most people are trying to say.
33: Phase vs. Faze
The word “phase” is usually used when talking about periods of time or stages. For instance, “Bob’s interest in sculpture was just a phase.” However, phase is often mistakenly used in place of the word faze, which means to disrupt.
34: Hone in vs. Home in
The word hone means to sharpen or improve somehow. For example, you can hone your speaking skills. To home in on something means to get closer to it. “We’re homing in on a cure for cancer”.
35: Brother in laws vs. Brothers in law
If your wife or husband has several siblings, they’re called your “brothers/sisters in law”. The general rule of thumb for making a compound noun plural is to add a “s” to the noun that there’s more of. In this case, the words brother and law are both nouns. Since the word you’re pluralising is brother, you add an “s” to it, not law.
Extracted from articles by Sarah Hansen & Dominique Jackson