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Are you getting these 19 common expressions wrong?

I’ll admit it. I have a weird sense of humour.

Most comedians leave me cold. If critics describe a film as “hilarious” I’m almost guaranteed not to like it.

But one thing that does make me chuckle is the misuse of language.

Some people are outraged by ‘shocking falling standards’ or the ‘English language going to hell’, much like a Daily Mail headline. Not me. I prefer to be amused. It makes life more fun.

I read something the other day that used the expression ‘white as a sheep’. Brilliant! But wrong. (The expression is ‘white as a sheet’. I think I prefer sheep. My sheets are purple.)

It got me thinking about the phrases people often misuse – and why it happens. This article contains 19 of my favourites, along with a cheeky language lesson while we’re at it.

Mondegreens, malapropisms and eggcorns

You what?

Don’t be misled by this subheading: these are all real names for common lexical errors.

mondegreen* is a misheard version of a song lyric, like this: “It doesn’t make a difference if we’re naked or not” from Bon Jovi’s Livin’ On A Prayer.

(Of course, the lyric is actually, “It doesn’t make a difference if we make it or not” – but the alternative sounds a lot more fun.)

malapropism** is when a similar-sounding wrong word is used instead of the right word, with nonsensical and often funny results.

And an eggcorn*** is a misunderstanding or mishearing of a phrase or word, often with broadly the same meaning.

(There are also homonyms, where words sound the same, like ‘there’, ‘their’ and ‘they’re’ but these are more likely to trip you up when you’re writing, not speaking.)

Lesson over. Without further a dew (sorry), here are 19 phrases that are commonly confused in British English. Which is your favourite?

Nip it in the bud NOT nip it in the butt

If you nip something in the bud, you’re cutting it off before it has a chance to develop, or grow. You might want to watch out for crabs nipping you in the butt if you’re hanging out at the beach… otherwise, it’s wrong.

“Your dog’s developing bad habits. You might want to nip that in the bud.”

On tenterhooks NOT on tender hooks

This phrase, meaning worried anticipation, comes from the word ‘tenter’ which was a frame on which cloth was stretched to prevent shrinking. The tenterhook kept the cloth tense and tight – hence the expression. A tender hook isn’t a thing.

“I’m on tenterhooks waiting for my exam results!”                               

To all intents and purposes NOT to all intensive purposes

‘To all intents and purposes’ is defined as meaning ‘in all important respects’ or ‘virtually’. The phrase dates back to 16th century law, where it started life as, ‘to all intents, constructions, and purposes’. It’s easy to see how this is misheard as ‘intensive’, but it’s still wrong.

“The house was, to all intents and purposes, abandoned.”

I couldn’t care less NOT I could care less

“I could care less” means you do, at least, care a little. “I couldn’t care less” means you don’t. Simple.

“I couldn’t care less what my ex thinks!”

180-degree turn NOT 360-degree turn

I do words. I don’t do maths. But I do know that if you start at point A and do a 360-degree turn, you’re still at point A.

When you want to express the fact that you started off thinking one thing but now think the complete opposite – in other words, you did a complete U-turn – that’s a 180-degree turn.

“I didn’t like the new album at first but I’ve done a complete 180 and now love it.”

Dog-eat-dog world NOT doggy dog world

The phrase ‘dog-eat-dog’ means brutal, ruthless and competitive. Apart from a track by Snoop Dogg, doggy dog world is not a thing. I just wish it was.

“It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, so you’d better up your game.”

Chest of drawers NOT Chester drawers

That unit in your bedroom where you keep your socks is a chest of drawers. Unless you bought the drawers from Chester, in which case, I won’t argue with you.

“Please put your clothes away in your chest of drawers.”

Moot point NOT mute point

‘Moot’ means arguable, or subject to debate. As well as thinking it’s ‘mute’, this one is also misused by people thinking it means that something isn’t up for debate.

Someone once told me they thought it was ‘a mute point’ because it meant ‘stop talking nonsense’. Makes perfect sense – particularly if you don’t know what ‘moot’ means.

Friends fans will remember the scene where Joey called it a ‘moo point’. “It’s like a cow’s opinion. It doesn’t matter. It’s moo.”

“Whether or not it should be enforced by law is a moot point.”

While we’re on the subject of comedy mishears, this clip from The IT Crowd – which covers damp squib/damp squid and pedestal/peddle stool is equally brilliant.

11 more commonly confused phrases 

  • Old wives’ tale NOT old wise tale
  • Off your own bat NOT off your own back
  • Go-getter NOT goal-getter
  • Scapegoat NOT escape goat
  • Alzheimer’s Disease NOT old timers’ disease
  • Chickenpox NOT chicken spots
  • Nerve-wracking NOT nerve-wrecking
  • Eton mess NOT eaten mess
  • Card sharp NOT card shark
  • Pass muster NOT pass mustard
  • …and, of course, white as a sheet NOT white as a sheep

My favourites are doggy-dog world and escape goat. What’s your favourite commonly confused expression? Have I covered it here? Did any surprise you?

*The word mondegreen comes from a 1954 article in Harper’s Magazine in which Sylvia Wright mentioned misinterpreting the words of a 17th-century Scottish ballad, ‘They have slain the Earl of Moray and laid him on the green’ as ‘They have slain the Earl of Moray and Lady Mondegreen’.

** The word malapropism comes Mrs Malaprop, a character in Sheridan’s 1775 play, The Rivals

***The most recent of the three terms, eggcorn refers to a misinterpretation of the word acorn. Its first recorded use was earlier this century.

Comments

31st May 2021

Bob Smith

I had a friend that used the term “Lives and breeds” instead of “Lives and breathes”.

24th October 2021

Don Jardine

Loved this article! I learned a couple of new words “mondegreen” and “eggcorn”. My partner uses “medlam” instead of “bedlam”. There was an equally amusing article in a teaching newspaper about apostrophes. It started out not using them at all through perfect use to using them everywhere.

25th October 2021

Michael Hart

you’re missing a few classics:

Drunk as an Ute (not a newt)
Ditch water not dish water

16th November 2021

Susan

I have a Freind who says Tantalised posts instead of tanalised posts.

6th March 2022

Robert Oden

My (least) favorite is “hone in” when people mean “home in.”

28th April 2022

Kathi R. Edge

There are so many misused or mispronounced words that drive me nuts, but 2 I can think of right now:

Welps instead of welts for bumps on ones body.

Troth instead of trough for a ditch or channel.

2nd May 2022

Debby

My lovely mum always used to use the phrase “Let’s play it by hear!” (Instead of ‘ear’). We still use it amongst the family as I makes us giggle!

1st June 2022

bob rosen

Sadly and embarrassingly, biden is bringing
all those meaningless words back into fashion…..

15th June 2022

Alison MacDonald

Hate it when people write ‘here, here’ instead of ‘hear, hear’.

24th June 2022

Judith Cheyne

Hearing these doesn’t bother me, but I’m sorry their lovely nuances of meaning have been lost, as well as the history locked in the expressions.
Instead of ‘to fire a Parthian shot’, people usually say ‘to fire a parting shot’ which is at least partly right, but I laughed when I heard a politician calling it ‘a partisan shot’, which is absolutely meaningless.

‘The proof is in the pudding’ instead of ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating’

On another note, but I just have to say it to someone ‘What’s happened to the the word ‘who’? When did its almost universal replacement with ‘that’ begin? If you haven’t noticed, take a look.

27th July 2022

Laura Mackenzie-Hawkins

A friend of my husbands said ‘It’s part of the course’ instead of the correct ‘Par for the course’. It instantly had me giggling and thinking of The IT Crowd 🤣

29th July 2022

n.h.

My daughter thought ‘a great hue and cry’ was ‘a great human cry’ — and she was 37!

29th July 2022

Serrana Pilar

This is neither cute nor funny – just ridiculous – but used far and wide especially by puffed up media personalities: “the thing is is that….”

12th September 2022

Brian Draper

Some years ago now,as an Insurance man I helped many complete proposals for motor insurance. Often they would admit to a motoring offenceof ” driving with due care and attention”!

20th November 2022

Sue

I can’t phantom why someone would eat a huge sammich when he is trying to curve his weight.

7th March 2023

Stephen Donovan

My annoyance is when there is a terrible disaster is reported on the news and they refer to it as being decimated. While a terrible disaster to be sure, if more than 10% were affected, it is not Decimation.

Decimation was a form of Roman military discipline in which every tenth man in a group was executed by members of his cohort. The discipline was used by senior commanders in the Roman army to punish units or large groups guilty of capital offences, such as cowardice, mutiny, desertion, and insubordination, and for pacification of rebellious legions. The procedure was an attempt to balance the need to punish serious offences with the realities of managing a large group of offenders.

8th April 2023

Lee Payne

One of my favorites:

“Kissin kin” instead of “kith and kin”

17th June 2023

James McCourt

Many years ago my mother “invented” “old timer’s disease.” She was a bit deaf at the time, and a few of us too her out for drinks after a revival of “On Your Toes,” the Rodgers and Hart Musical starring the great Russian dancer Natalia Makarovs — she had seen the original production starring Tamara Geva and choreographed by George Balanchine, then entering senile dementia, dreaming he was a boy again, in St. Petersburg, a little star of the Maryinsky Ballet, sitting in Czar Nicholas II’s lap in the royal box.
We said it was a shame he was suffering from Alzheeimer’s disease, but at least he was not in great mental distress, rather the opposite, and she said, “But he’s not such an old timer as that.” and she wasn’t being clever.

1st October 2023

Brock Lupton

A recent misused word is “fulsome”. I had always understood it to mean “disgusting by excess” but it seems now to be widely accepted as meaning “thorough” or “comprehensive”. It’s hard to resist a fulsome reaction (in both senses).

What do you think?

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