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.
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