Ten Misheard Expressions To Avoid In Your Writing

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?

Comments

  • “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.

      • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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’.

  • 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?

  • 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.

  • 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 🙂

    • 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.

    • 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.

  • 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?”
      CUSTOMER:
      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.

  • 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.

    • 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).

  • the definition of “begging the question” is another, albeit less common mistake that is made

    Begging the question (or petitio principii, “assuming the initial point”) is a type of logical fallacy in which the proposition to be proved is assumed implicitly or explicitly in the premise. The first known definition in the West is by the Greek philosopher Aristotle around 350 BCE, in his book Prior Analytics, where he classified it as a material fallacy. Begging the question is related to the circular argument, circulus in probando (Latin, “circle in proving”) or circular reasoning, though these are considered absolutely different by Aristotle.

    when was the last time you heard “begging the question” used in such a way?

    • Thinking about it, quite often.
      If someone says ‘… And as a result, they got injured, which begs the question; Why were they there in the first place?’, they mean it in the context you have specified – they are assuming the oringal question on ‘Why they were there’ has an answer satisfying it up to the point that they actually were there (and hence the circular reasoning).
      However, I can imagine that no one actually thinks of the phrase in that way, but more in terms of asking a rhetorical question.

      • Yeah, in that case “prompting the question” is semantically identical to “begging the question”, though as Conor said, most of the time when people say the latter they mean the former.

    • My #innerpedant would say that’s not a tautology: the preposition might be redundant (though that it is debatable), but it’s not a “needless repetition of an idea”, to quote the Macquarie. Now “free giveaway”, that’s a tautology.

  • Good article. Great comments. Pity I couldn’t read them due to my Immaculate Degeneration and Glaucomia. Emphesemia and prostrate cancer also annoy me. As do the confusion between imply and infer. Finally, tech-savvy people should set up their computer system, not setup their computer system.

  • And what about the use of “that” when referring to a person as in “he was the one that was there when it happened” instead of “he was the one who was there when it happened.”

    I see this so much, even more so than the previously mentioned “would of” instead of “would have.”

    Both are so annoying!

    • In British English, that is totally acceptable in a defining clause: Which man? The one that was there … You can also, of course, use who in this situation. Sometimes you hear it said that you should use who for people, that or which for things. But in fact, it is quite permissible to say “The tree, in whose branches the birds were singing ….”

  • and please, forgive me but I just don’t know- is it:
    a) darned side easier?
    b) darned sight easier?
    C) darn sight easier?
    ’cause I don’t really ‘get’ any of them, but have seen all.

    • Pretty sure that B or C are okay to use.

      C is a little more acceptable than B, I think. That could just be a personal preference – not sure that it’s proper, grammatically correct fact.

  • A few more hates of mine are:

    Defiantly instead of definitely
    Definately instead of definitely (this makes me feel like I’ve been defecated on)
    Physco instead of psycho

    Thanks everyone, I have been laughing and crying while reading these posts in this open plan office.

  • Where do we start? :-))

    * Their/there/they’re
    * Its/it’s/its’ (yes, the last one seems to be breeding)
    * The (mis)use of apostrophes in general
    * To/too
    * Alot
    * Noone (always think this is an Olde Englishe version of midday)
    * Misuse of the word ‘literally’ in inappropriate contexts (“I literally died when I saw her dress”)

    While one does not really think that on-line forums (fora?) are going to be the epitome of good spelling and grammar, the general standard in the real world is abysmal.

    What ARE they teaching in English at school these days?

    Bye,
    Ye Grumpy Olde Pharte

    • If I remember correctly; when I was at school we jumped straight from old English to modern American when studying literary works.

      We also didn’t do any work on grammar after year 7.

      Really; grammar is far more important than Shakespeare or pop literature, but try telling that to the board of studies.

  • Here’s another big gripe that I have…

    using the word more in conjunction with a word such as closer, fewer, brighter etc

    “more closer” = closer
    “more brighter” = brighter

    It’s also not “more close”, or “more bright”!

  • I know this isn’t exactly an article about word pronounciation, but I thought of this after reading the comments about specific/pacific.

    Nuclear – its NEW-kleer, not NEW-kyuh-lar. (I’m looking at you, Jack Bauer).

  • RAPT: some say ‘I am rapt’ meaning ‘I am very happy’. Comes from ‘enraptured’. It’s NOT WRAPPED or WRAPT. And so, AAPT, your ad about being WRAAPT about your products actually just looks foolish.

  • A personal “favourite”; “Wallah!” instead of “Voila!”. OK, Americans are not renowned for their ability to pronounce French words, but I expect those who use the word believe it to be actually be an English word.

  • I am hoping it is just laziness that the young ones on facebook get the ‘their, they’re & there’ mixed up, but I suspect they just don’t know that ‘would of’ is a barstardisation of ‘would’ve’.

    Sad, really.

    Oh, and we do maths here, not math!!

  • 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!!! 🙂

    And what about “In one FOUL swoop”….?

    • Gotten (as a past participle) is probably Middle English and has always been prevalent here in the South where some of us still pronounce “striped” stry-ped. Not me, of course. I’ve gotten over that.

  • Incorrect use of the phrase “in lieu of” makes me homicidal. Many people seem to think it means “because of” or “in light of”, versus “instead of”. WRONG: “The employees did not get a raise, and, in lieu of that, they went on strike.”. Its maddening!

  • Many people like using “right-hand” (or “left-hand”) to indicate direction, which drives me nuts. “Make a right-hand turn,” or “It’s on the right-hand side” is much too common.

    • Seems valid, but considerably easier more likely to occur to talk from a individual’s perspective than to expect all individuals to orientate themselves to their location. People are simply not aware of their direction.

  • I have even heard radio and TV announcers say “These ones” or “Those ones.” It has irritated me, but I have never actually seen (in print) where it’s wrong. Can anyone back me up?

  • Hey Angus, I think we went to school together. Congrats on the LH gig.
    Please include “loth” – correct instead of “loathe” – incorrect as in “I am loth to correct grammar mistakes when conversing in the pub.”
    Seems like only The Economist gets this one right. Australian print media never does.

  • I have to admit being gobsmacked when a friend excitedly blurted out “wacko the dildo”. I always thought the saying was “wacko the diddle oh”, or a least something similar and certainly nothing to do with being hit with pleasure.

  • One really dumb phrase I keep hearing lately is “heart rendering”. It sounds like the sort of work you might contract out to Dreamworks or Pixar.

    I even heart someone on TV once use it describing the post-earthquake carnage in Haiti as a “heart rendering scene”. You’d forgive a slip like that on a blog or webpage but on TV?

  • I saw someone write that their friend was being a “pre-madonna” about her wedding arrangements.

    Oh, and I have two colleagues who say “pacifically” and every time I hear it I think less of them.

  • I’m a publishing editor and recently a writer turn in a story that read “the advantages far AWAY the disadvantages” when he meant “Far OUT WEIGH the disadvantages..” He just sent me this link to your fabulous with his [embarrassed] apology. Another one that bugs me is people who write “anchors away” when, I believe, it’s “anchors aweigh”, meaning “lose the weight of the anchor”, if I’m not mistaken. Nice site. Nice post.

  • Less vs Fewer: This is really easy to remember, but we’ve become very lazy. Use Less when you’re talking about continuous quantities, Fewer for discrete. So, you talk about less water, but fewer bottles.

  • Funniest read I’ve had in a while…thanks Lifehacker!

    My Father in Law mixes up ‘bought’ and ‘brought’ and occasionally drops a ‘brung’ in the mix.

    My pet hate is the abuse of lend/loan/borrow though. ‘Can I lend your USB key?’, ‘Can I have a loan of your USB key?’

    Arrrggghhhhh!

  • I just cannot stand seeing a “than” where a “then” is supposed to be and vice versa. Oh, and “it’s” instead of “its”, as well as the opposite, just…no more commenting on that one.

  • I’m a pharmacist and I routinely hear patients and even doctors say “take one tablet of a night” instead of “take one tablet at night”. I’m from NZ and I’ve only heard this in Australia. Can someone enlighten me?

  • One that is often spoken/written incorrectly: “champing at the bit.” I’ve seen “chomping at the bit,” “chomping on the bit,” “chafing on the bid”…

    (How does one chafe on a bid, exactly?)

  • ‘Chomping at the bit’ instead of ‘champing’. I think this is one that is so commonplace that it’s going to replace the original, depressingly enough.

  • Misuse of ‘I’ and ‘me,’ using ‘I’ as the object instead of ‘me.’ eg. This couldn’t happen to John and I. Should be ‘This couldn’t happen to John and me!’ This is so pervasive now – my pet hate.

    • That’s one I have to think about sometimes – remove the other person/thing and see if it makes sense. I’m normally pretty naturally gifted with knowing what to say and how to say it on the spot and have been since I was quite young, but this is just one of my weaknesses, I suppose. I normally have to think this one through.

      Also, “by accident” not “on accident”.

  • Writing “ie” when “eg” is meant. A friend did this to me in the email after the one in which she’d used “subsume” quite correctly and appropriately; the “mot juste” for the situation. I could feel almost physically my appreciation of her use of language zoom then dive – then plough when she wrote “definately”.

    It’s odd how inconsistent some people’s linguistic skills and knowledge are.

  • One acquaintance on Facebook referred to a picture of her daughter wearing “high hills”. It made me a little sad to think a grown woman could not make a connection between shoes and heels. Then I laughed, for a long time.

  • Some I don’t even believe people use – “intensive purposes” springs to mind…maybe I only hang around smart people, I don’t know…

    Anyway one to add:

    “Bear in mind” not “Bare in mind.”

    I don’t know why, but that’s how it is.

  • Not so much a grammatical error more and annoyance. I’ve always questioned “at the present moment” when you could simplify with “at the moment” What’s the difference? Isn’t the present now, i.e. this moment?

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