No matter how many linguistics courses you took in college, how many great novels you’ve read, or how many times you’ve retweeted Merriam-Webster, chances are there are some phrases you just can’t help yourself from misusing. While you might balk at the idea of mixing up “pacific” and “specific,” there are likely dozens of words, phrases, and idioms you’re using incorrectly time and time again, from describing your unclothed self as being “butt naked” to describing someone’s transformation as “a complete 360.”
But you don’t need a complete reboot of your vocabulary to sound smarter in a hurry. All it takes is a refresher course with these 40 expressions you’re using all wrong. And for more linguistic errors to sidestep, make sure you know—and avoid—the 40 Sayings Men Over 40 Should Stop Using Immediately and the 40 Sayings Women Over 40 Should Stop Using Immediately.
“I could care less.”
One of the most commonly misused phrases, saying “I could care less” indicates the opposite of what people generally mean when they utter this expression. In using this phrase, they’re saying that the subject in question merits some care. The correct usage is, “I couldn’t care less,” meaning that there’s nothing less worthy of your time than the thing you’re discussing. And when you’re eager to update your vocabulary, ditch these 100 Slang Terms From the 20th Century No One Uses Anymore.
“Doggy dog world”
Add a second G to the word “dog” and you’ve got the title of an early ‘90s Snoop Dogg track. However, calling anything a “doggy dog world” doesn’t make much sense. “Dog-eat-dog world,” meaning a place that’s highly competitive, is the preferred usage here.
Regardless of how much slang slips into your vocabulary, don’t use the word “irregardless” under any circumstance. Regardless is a word. This permutation, sadly, is not. And once you’ve ditched “irregardless,” bulk up your vocabulary with these 30 Words That Will Make You Sound Smarter.
“Nip it in the butt.”
While “nip in the butt” might conjure adorable imagines of a puppy playfully biting a person’s posterior, that action would probably do little to stop a situation from occurring. “Nip in the bud,” which means to halt something in process, refers to the keeping of plants—particularly the idea that, when trimmed or harmed at an early age, a flower won’t grow.
So, you could have used “could have,” but chose “could of” instead. While “could have” indicates that something was possible—you could have gone swimming but chose to stay inside instead, for example—“could of” doesn’t really make any logical sense. The error tends to stem from the pronunciation of the contraction “could’ve,” which is phonically indistinguishable from “could of.”
If you’re naked, your butt is probably exposed—likely the reason so many people misuse this phrase. The correct expression, however, is “buck naked,” the former word referring to a man, or, as suggested by Washington State University professor Paul Brians, may also have roots in the early American slave trade, where it was used as a derogatory term against black men. And for more potentially offensive phrases to ditch, check out these 20 Things You’re Saying You Didn’t Know Were Offensive.
“You’ve got another thing coming.”
The phrase “you’ve got another thing coming” seems to make sense: you think one thing, but subsequently supplied information will likely change your mind. However, the original usage was “another think coming,” meaning another thought will soon replace the one you currently hold true.
“They did a 360.”
If you go 360 degrees around a circle, you’ve traveled a long distance, which may be why some people assume that this phrase makes sense. However, traveling 360 degrees leaves you right where you started, while going 180 degrees leaves you as far from your starting point as possible.
“If worse comes to worse…”
According to the New York Times, the first known iteration of the phrase, published in 1596, was, in fact, “worst come to the worst,” indicating a hypothetical worst-case scenario turning into a real-life worst-case scenario. However, over time, the phrase has evolved, and today, “If worse comes to worst” is more commonly used to indicate the possibility of a bad situation becoming a terrible one.
“For all intensive purposes…”
When people say “for all intents and purpose,” it certainly sounds similar to “all intensive purposes,” and the latter almost makes sense: if your purposes are intensive, they’re highly focused. That said, the correct usage is “for all intents and purposes,” meaning for all practical purposes.
“Wet your appetite”
What would it mean if one’s appetite were wet, exactly? The phrase you’re likely looking for is “whet your appetite,” “whet” being an antiquated way of saying that something incites interest.
Though the two are homophones, the word “unfazed” is what you’re looking for. “To faze” means to disturb, so if you’re unfazed by something, it doesn’t cause you much trouble.
“One in the same”
If two things are the same, the phrase you’re looking for is “one and the same,” not “one in the same.” While “one in the same” seems like it makes sense, you’ll definitely get an earful if you use it in a formal setting.
It might seem reasonable that you’re preparing for a “worse-case scenario,” or a time when things are significantly worse than they are at the present. What you should prepare for instead, however, is a “worst-case scenario,” a time when things have gotten insurmountably bad.
While “honing” sounds like the correct usage here, the verb meaning “to sharpen a skill,” the correct phrase is “homing in.” Like a homing missile, “to home” means “to get closer to,” in either a figurative or literal sense.
If you’re jiving with someone, you’re dancing together. If you’re jibing with them, you’re getting along, or find yourself generally in agreement with them.
Although “baited” may seem to make sense here, as though you’re waiting in anticipation of catching something, the correct word in this case is “bated.” The latter spelling means to reduce the intensity of something, indicating that you’re exercising restraint over something you’re excited for.
“The spitting image”
While “spitting image” is the form of the phrase most commonly used today, its original incarnation is “spit and image.” The phrase is thought to stem from a 16th-century text in which an author refers to similarities between parent and child being the result of appearing as though the latter was spit from the former’s mouth. However, many scholars also believe it’s Biblical in origin, and that it refers to God’s creation of Adam.
“Statue of limitations”
Unless there’s a stone sculpture with a list of won’t somewhere, “statue of limitations” doesn’t make a lot of sense. On the other hand, a statute of limitations, meaning a law that describes the limited timeframe in which legal measures can be taken, does.
If you’re making a cup of coffee, it might be a pour over. If you’re carefully inspecting something, you’re poring over it—pore, in this case, meaning to intently study or reflect upon something.
We have some bad news: “anyways” is not a word. If you’re eager to change the subject in a conversation, “anyway” will do.
If something’s deep-seeded, it must mean that it’s deeply embedded, like a seed in soil, right? Well, not exactly. The correct phrase is “deep-seated,” meaning something is firmly established or hidden below the surface.
“On tender hooks”
We’re not sure what kind of hook could be described as tender, per se, so it stands to reason that “on tender hooks,” while commonly used, is not actually correct. Instead, the phrase is “on tenterhooks,” describing the hooks used to stretch wool on a frame, leaving it in a fragile state.
While this phrase sounds as though it’s about a monarch doing what they want, it’s actually a reference to horses. Giving “free rein” means to allow a horse—or, metaphorically, a person—to determine its own path, having loosened its reins.
If you’re getting revenge, it makes sense that you’re extracting it from the object of your enmity, but the correct phrase is “exact revenge.” To exact, in this case, means to demand revenge from the person who’s wronged you.
Though some will claim that this is simply a regional variation, strictly speaking, the correct usage is “by accident.” Of course, this is particularly confusing, seeing as the generally-accepted opposite of the phrase is “on purpose.”
“Waiting on someone”
Unless you’re working at a restaurant or bar, you likely don’t spend any of your time waiting on someone. Instead, you spend your time waiting for them.
“Slight of hand”
Though they’re homophones, meaning you can get away with saying the wrong phrase aloud, “slight of hand” isn’t correct. “Slight” can mean something small or describe an insult, whereas “sleight” describes a form of trickery, as in “sleight of hand magic.”
“Peak my interest”
It certainly seems like “peak” makes sense here—“peak my interest” sounds as though it means “to heighten interest,” after all. However, pique is the correct spelling, and means to stimulate.
If you don’t want your old wedding ring, you might take it to a pawn shop, so it stands to reason that you’d similarly “pawn off” a project you don’t enjoy on a coworker. However, the correct phrase is “palmed off,” meaning to trick someone.
“Mano a mano”
As a general rule, if you aren’t fluent in another tongue, you’ll likely run into trouble when attempting to use its idiomatic language. Case in point: many people use the phrase “mano a mano,” assuming it means “man to man,” when, in fact, it means “hand-to-hand,” generally a reference to fighting—probably not what your friend means when he wants to ask you something “mano a mano.”
One of the most irritating misspellings just so happens to be one of the most common: “sneak peak.” If you’re getting an early glimpse at something, it’s a “sneak peek.”
Unless you’re describing a place with no guys named Scott in it, the phrase you’re probably looking for is “scot-free,” meaning unpunished or unharmed.
If you got a foot in the door for a job, it stands to reason that you’d be a “shoe-in” for the position, right? Not quite. In fact, the standard phrase is “shoo-in,” meaning something easily ushered in.
Beckoning means to summon someone or something, which is likely the reason so many people misuse this phrase. However, what you should be saying instead is “beck and call,” meaning you’re available at someone’s command. Confusingly, though, the word “beck” and the word “beckon” are related, so if you’ve been saying this wrong, don’t beat yourself up about it.
“Take a different track.”
If you’re not particularly familiar with nautical slang, you’ve probably been making this error with some frequency. In fact, the correct phrase is “take a different tack,” meaning to take a different approach—a tack describing whether the wind is hitting the port or starboard side of a sailboat.
“You can have your cake and eat it, too.”
Though many people will use the phrase “have your cake and eat it too” to describe when you’re getting multiple things they wanted at once, that usage is debatably correct, at best. The preferred use of the phrase is “you can’t have your cake and eat it, too,” meaning that the two things in question are mutually exclusive, like both having a cake in your kitchen and getting to eat all of it would be.
“A mute point”
It seems relatively logical that a mute point—something that’s so inconsequential as to be completely silenced—would be the proper use of this phrase. However, it’s actually “moot” point, meaning that it’s debatable.
“First come, first serve”
If there’s a limited supply of something, it might be described as “first come, first served,” though many people erroneously write or say “first come, first serve” instead. While the former indicates that the first people who get there will be served by others, the latter with its use of the present tense “serve,” doesn’t make much sense.
“Chock it up”
“Chock” has numerous meanings in the English language, but none of them mean “to credit something.” However, that’s exactly what “chalk” can mean in this context—hence the correct phrase “to chalk it up.” And for more insight into what you thought the world was, learn the 30 Amazing Facts That Will Change the Way You View the World.
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