Ten Misheard Expressions To Avoid In Your Writing

Anyone can make a typo or a spelling mistake, and fixing those is pretty easy in the spellcheck era. If you want your writing totally error-free, you also need to avoid using expressions which you think you're using correctly but which you've actually misheard. Here are ten examples to watch out for.

Having studied linguistics as my main subject at university many years ago, I do recognise that language usage changes over time, and that time period can be quite short. Prescriptive rules eventually give way if the majority of speakers of a language adopt a different approach (the switch from using "he" to "they" to refer to an unspecified individual is one obvious recent example).

However, that doesn't mean that there aren't rules that continue to apply in particular contexts, or expressions that are, for all standard purposes, flat-out incorrect. For some reason there are few things that irk me more than writers using a phrase such as "different tact" and being blissfully unaware that they've got it quite wrong.

This is a list of some of the most common errors in that field. They're mistakes which you won't necessarily notice during conversations, but which should stick out like a sore thumb (not a saw thumb) in written work. Many spell-checking systems won't pick these errors up, though Word did flag about half of them while I was writing this piece. (Confession: I've gathered quite a few of these examples from my Lifehacker US colleagues.)

Some of these mistakes attract their own false etymologies. People construct a pseudo-logical explanation for the version they're using, and over time these can become quite widely believed. Leaving aside the fact that language is not always based in obvious logic anyway (see "beyond the pale" below), the existence of an apparently plausible explanation doesn't make those expressions correct. It just makes it a little less likely that you'll realise you're wrong.

"Different tack", not "different tact"

The tack in this case is the direction in which a ship is travelling. It's not an abbreviation for "tactic".

"Moot point", not "mute point"

If something is "moot", then it's open to debate. The two words "moot" and "mute" are pronounced quite differently in Australian English (the first rhymes with "coot", the second with "cute"), but their similarity in some US accents seems to have created confusion.

"Taking up the reins", not "taking up the reigns"

The expression is about riding a horse, not about forcing your mother to abdicate so you can rule the kingdom.

"Eke out", not "eek out"

The Macquarie dictionary handily defines "eke out" as "to supply what is lacking". If you write "eek out" instead, you're lacking accuracy.

"Beyond the pale", not "beyond the pail"

The meaning is clear — something that's generally unacceptable — but the origin isn't. This has nothing to do with the colour of your skin or where a bucket might be located on your property. Here's the origin per the Macquarie Dictionary:

In English history, a fence around a territory and by extension the limit to which a jurisdiction extended; hence the Irish Pale, the part of Ireland ruled by the English in the 14th century and in which English law held sway. Anyone living beyond this boundary was thought to be beyond the bounds of civilisation.

"Mine of information", not "mind of information"

A mine is filled with undiscovered riches. Your mind is a terrible thing to waste.

"Just deserts", not "just desserts"

This is understandably liable to cause confusion, since it uses a less common sense of "desert" (a deserved reward) which is pronounced the same way as "dessert" (as in ice cream). Snopes has a good explanation of the differences.

"Wait with bated breath", not "wait with baited breath"

No, your breath doesn't stink like fish while you're waiting. Bated in this case is the shortened form of abate, meaning to lessen or withdraw.

"Due respect", not "do respect"

Anyone who thinks "with all do respect" makes any kind of sense is not thinking about what they write. Like "moot point", this is a bigger issue with US English due to a lack of differentiation in the pronunciation of "due" and "do".

"For all intents and purposes", not "for all intensive purposes"

Intensive means "occurring in an extreme degree", so there would be quite a difference between "intensive purposes" and "all intents and purposes" — the incorrect version is much less all-encompassing than it wants to be.

What other common misheard phrases should we be avoiding? Tell us in the comments. Thanks Caitlin for the Twitter discussion that kicked off this idea.

Lifehacker 101 is a weekly feature covering fundamental techniques that Lifehacker constantly refers to, explaining them step-by-step. Hey, we were all newbies once, right?


    My favourite is "try and do" for "try to do". And of course there's "full swoop" for "fell swoop".

      All of the above irritate me no end.

      But one that stands out, having heard it again last night on TV, is that awful Americanisation "off of"

      As in: "I got the information off of the Internet"

      And of course - the creeping use of "gotten" instead of plain old "got", as in "She has gotten old"

      ARRGGHHHHH!!! :)

        Off of bad. How about simply "from"...???!!!!

        Interestingly both of these are good "older English": off of in Elizabethan times, used by Shakespeare;p and gotten more recently - compare with forget, forgot, forgotten. These earlier usages were preserved in the USA, but fell into disuse in other places.

      Oh yes - and don't forget "foul swoop" in relation to Steven's "full swoop"....!

        Fell swoop, not foul.

    this post is making my head hurt

    "I could care less" annoys me so much, same with "I didn't do nothing!"

    Not an expression as such, but I've noticed it a lot lately: People these days try AND do something. It used to be that you try TO do something.

    I always thought "try and" was incorrect, but more and more people seem to be readily accepting it in less formal contexts, like in conversations.

      Surely "I could care less," is a contracted version of "You assume I could care less," or similar?

        I've always thought it's a lazy misunderstanding of "I couldn't care less", a phrase which is logically consistent. Abbreviating "I assume you could care less" doesn't make it make any more sense.

      Apparently, try and is at least as old as try to in English, and is pretty much standard in British English speech, although try to would be used in very formal writing. Try and has been used in writing by Dickens, Austen, Melville, Twain and other great authors.

    Don't forget 'irregardless', 'a whole nother' and 'all of THE sudden'.

    My pet hate is anyone saying they are on tender hooks instead of tenterhooks (to be uncertain and anxious about what is going to happen)

    My girlfriend always says "seeming as" instead of "seeing as"... which irritates me.

      Lots of clowns at work think its "seen as". It grinds my gears.

      Also many people seem to believe that the abvreviation "should've" is written "should of". Lots of culprits on Facebook.

        That should be "think it's" not "think its".

        Sorry Phil, I should of checked my punctuation ;-)

    I'm always amused by "Let's nip it in the butt"

    "For all intensive purposes" makes me want to vomit in my mouth a little.

      I actually had an argument with someone about it just last week, and they simply would not believe they were incorrect - it left me speechless.

      Mind you, I rather like "for all intents and porpoises".

        surely you are addressing seaside campers "for all in tents and porpoises"

    The most annoying of these for me, by far, is people who use "would of" or "might of" instead of "would have" or "might have". I only see it in late teens/early 20s, people around my age, but I'm genuinely worried that it's going to become the standard, or even acceptable to use.

      Oh god, it hurts every time i hear it.

    I get annoyed with

    "oft times"

    as in "oft times I say silly things" as opposed to "I often say silly things"

    My boyfriend always says 'splitting image' for two people who look alike. I can see how that one can be confusing as it actually makes more sense that 'spitting image'.

      Even "spitting image" is a misunderstanding. It is an older Southern colloquialism "spirit and image." For example, "That boy is the spirit and image of his daddy."

        Interesting. I always wondered if "spitting image" meant they were alike right down to their spit.

        The etymology of "spitting image" is complex and hard to pin down, but the notion that it is derived from "spirit and image" has certainly been disputed. (Will check further when I'm back home with some proper dictionaries!)

          So three years later and you've nothing to add?

    "what happens if" does not equal womsif
    likewise "may as well" does not shorten to mosewell
    then there is augers well and all goes well ;)

    My favorite recently was a friend who didn't want to place someone else on a 'pedal stool'. That one came in an email too, the written word.

    Is a 'pedal stool' some kind of unicycle?

      Poo shaped like a pedal?

      upon a pedal stool was how Davros started

      You sure it wasn't just a "damn you autocorrect"?

    your so wrong. ;-)


      I believe you mean, you're so right....not your right. You're means you are.


    My wife hasn't got a specific expression, but has lots of words - the worst of which is "sempt" instead of "seemed"

    "a whole nother" is one that I cannot stand.

    Haven't noticed anyone mention one that I find particularly painful; using then in place of than. I swear I have some friends who haven't used 'than' in any emails I've ever received from them.

      So many people mess this one up. They say things like 'Better then that', or 'This thing is bigger then that one'.


        Sounds fine to me. First we will Better, then we will than.


    Personal hate: 'Sorry for the inconvenience'

    You're not sorry FOR it, you're sorry ABOUT it.

    My personal favourite - if you nearly vomit you "dry wretch" NOT "dry reach" ("to wretch" means to vomit).

    I also thought "a moot point" meant "one which is no longer relevant".

      Actually, it's "dry retch". Retch = vomit; wretch = unfortunate soul. A wretch might retch, but not vice-versa.

      Moot is indeed often used in the sense you describe, and will probably reach the point where that becomes the primary meaning. But it still won't make "mute point" correct :)

        ooops too slow Angus got in before me :)

        A moot point is a point to be discussed at a moot (a meeting), and so the meaning of 'not worth discussing now' comes naturally from that.

        Aussie slang makes me want to dry retch and vomit I vomit at aussie people who have slang . people who use the dry retch slang make me want to throw up on them

        People who use this dry retch slang make me feel like dry reaching down my throat as those aussie people ar dim interlect.w pommy people don't use silly australian slang

      wretch: a sad sorry individual stricken by poverty or circumstances.
      retch: a spasm of the stomach and throat.

      dry wretch? - still a wretch
      dry retch - voluntary or involuntary vomiting on an empty stomach.

        Aussie slang makes me feel like dry reaching down my throat is it puts me off

      I thought it was dry retch. A wretch is someone who is miserable.

      A wretch is a lowly, deplorable character. To retch is to experience a stomach convulsion which may or may not produce vomit. The word retch is pronounced the same way as the word wretch, which causes frequent confusion.

    I hate it when people use bought and brought interchangeably. Or when people say supposably instead of supposedly.

      That is indeed a common one, but I was taught this in Primary School: bought as in buy, brought as in bring. It's all in the R.

    The one that shocks me is just how often I hear "pacific" used instead of "specific".

    I consider myself a bit of a word/grammar nazi, but I actually didn't know about "just deserts".

      I also hear the incorrect use of specific all the time. Working in a bookshop, it was a weekly occurrance that a customer would ask for a "pacific" book.
      CUSTOMER: "Can you help me find a pacific book?"
      ME: "Sure, we have books on the Pacific over here; also there are many books titled 'The Pacific', was it a specific author you were looking for?"
      Maybe we should go and look that up in a The-A-Saurus? Maybe there's even an Autobiology we can find.....
      (Just a few of the many gems I have heard in my years.)

    Honestly, if you want your fill of cringe-worthy phrases and grammatical errors, just spend some time on Facebook. I have seen everything, including the ongoing "their, there and they're" problem.

    I blame inadequate English curriculum and poor pronunciation. At least if the pronunciation was fixed, sounding out these phrases and words would fix a few of the issues.

      Don't forget that "pronounciation" is the new way to say things and stuff like.

    My missus gets really furious when people use 'less' instead of 'fewer'. She seems to spot it a lot in the news and on TV adverts. This is why we don't watch television anymore.

      That's one which I think is acceptable to get wrong. In either case the meaning is unchanged, whether the noun is countable or not is made known by the noun as well as the adjective. To me it seems nothing is gained by having different adjectives.

    lackadaisical, not lacksadaisical
    or perhaps not use this word ever again...

      And even worse - how many footballers have you heard bewailing their team's "laxydaisy" performance in the second half?

      One more example I've heard in "incidences" instead of "instances" or "incidents". I hate that!

        Incidence, and its plural incidences are both words.
        If used in the context of an accident (incident) then there's a problem, but it has almost the same meaning as instance(s).

    a good one I heard: the housing market will plato. They meant plateau, obviously. Written exactly like the philosopher.

    Also, man, the oatmeal really should do a poster of these.

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