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21 Expressions You’re Probably Saying Wrong

21 Expressions You’re Probably Saying Wrong

Expressions are ingrained in our society deeper than a termite in its favorite flavor of wood, adding flavor to our conversations and color to our communications. Some have graduated into clichés due to the commonality of the vernacular, and while most are still used correctly, some have become contorted compilations of their former selves.

There are websites dedicated to collecting poorly-structured metaphors to bring a bit of humor to the daily doldrums, and student essay attempts seem to garner the most glee from grammar snobs. Here are a few of my favorites:

“The ballerina rose gracefully en pointe and extended one slender leg behind her, like a dog at a fire hydrant.” 

“Her hair glistened in the rain like nose hair after a sneeze.”

“Every minute without you feels like 60 seconds.”

While these are certainly entertaining, they thankfully haven’t gained popularity beyond the humorous examples of things that just don’t quite work. Yet, other phases continue to feel the pain of incorrect usage over and over in daily exchanges. Here are 21 common expressions that have suffered unintentional abuse and are crying out for vindication. Fear not, dear distressed distortions, now is your moment for exoneration!

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(Throughout this piece, if my explanations confuse you further, the phrases on the left are incorrect and the phrases on the right are correct.)

1: It’s a doggy-dog world vs. It’s a dog-eat-dog world.

If it’s really a “doggy-dog world,” then we are all in big trouble. I prefer the fact that humans still veto dogs on the planet. If Fido is running for mayor, we may as well just lock up all the mail men for their safety and invest in fire hydrant stocks. However, if it’s a “dog-eat-dog world,” this conveys that people are merciless and will do anything to their own kind to get to the top. This is usually the underlying meaning intended. Hmm… when faced with that side of human nature, maybe I would prefer the world going to the dogs.

2: Waiting with baited breath vs. Waited with bated breath

If you’re “waiting with baited breath,” I really feel for those within sniffing distance of your respiration. Unless you really mean to say that you are waiting after just consuming large quantities of fish bait, then I think the word you’re looking for is “bated.” The word “bated” comes from the word “abate,” which means “to lessen or reduce.” So, if you are so excited that you are barely breathing, then bated breath is your best choice. Please, for the sake of the unsuspecting populace, leave the squid sandwich at home!

3: Pawn off vs. Palm off

What you mean to convey is “palm off,” which means to “pass something by concealment or deception.” Think of a card game where the card dealer surreptitiously deals a novice player a low card. While pawn shops certainly may have some shady exchanges, the original phrase had nothing to do with buying a gold chain in a seedy store.

4: Slight of hand vs. Sleight of hand

“Slight” refers to something “small in degree or inconsiderable.” The word “sleight” is related to the word “sly,” and means “deceitful craftiness or dexterity.” Unless you meant to say that the magician had tiny hands of no consequence, the correct terminology is “sleight of hand.” If you want to be really fancy, the technical term is called prestidigitation. It means the person has quick fingers that can deceive you. Now, a magician, theoretically, may need more practice and only have a slight sleight of hand. However, unless you are trying to be insulting, use the second phrase.

5: Take a different tact vs. Take a different tack

Unless you plan to change your manners in social situations, the correct usage is “take a different tack.” This is a sailing metaphor. To tack is to change the direction of a sailing vessel by shifting the sails and turning the bow into the wind.

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6: Comparing apples to oranges

Most people who use this metaphor mean that there are vast differences in the topics at hand. It means that the contrasting items have very little in common. For example, as it is used in this sentence, “You can’t compare a fish to a bird, that’s like comparing apples to oranges.” However, apples and oranges have many more commonalities than differences. They are both fruit. They both are grown from seeds and picked from trees in orchards. Both apples and oranges are sweet, similar in size, weight, and shape. Both fruits may be eaten and juiced. This metaphor lacks logical significance. It would make more sense to say, “comparing apples to aardvarks.”

7: Ante Up

The term “ante up” is used often in the business world. The user is trying to convey the need to supply a commitment of resources. However, the word “ante” is taken from the world of gambling. I don’t think most organizations really mean to convey that their business ventures are comparable in risk to a poker game.

8: Mute point vs. Moot point

“Mute” means “incapable of speech.” “Moot” means “debatable or doubtful.” While a moot point may cause someone to stop talking, it doesn’t render them mute. The point, not being a person, never had any ability to talk in the first place. So the word “moot” is a much better descriptive choice.

9: Blessing in the skies vs. Blessing in disguise

While a blessing may indeed come from the skies, unless you’ve been doing a rain dance around a fire, this was not the original thought for this phrase. Most of the time, people mean that even though things don’t seem to be working in your favor, later you will look back and see the hardship as a benefit or “blessing in disguise.”

10: Wreck havoc vs. Wreak havoc

To “wreck” means “to put something in the state of chaos.” The word “havoc” means chaos. So, if you say, “This dreadful weather will wreck havoc on our outdoor party!” you are literally saying that the weather will create chaos out of chaos. It’s redundant. However, “to wreak” means “to cause something to happen.” This works much better. There is enough chaos to go around. Let’s not create more!

11: Escape Goat vs. Scapegoat

A “scapegoat” in today’s society is someone who may be innocent, but gets blamed for someone else’s actions. The word originally comes from a Hebrew religious practice: During the Day of Atonement, the high priest confessed the sins of the nation of Israel over the innocent goat. The goat was then driven into the desert to carry the sins of the nation as far away as possible and die in the wilderness. So, historically the goat didn’t fair well and certainly didn’t escape peril for long. Therefore, “scapegoat” is the correct usage.

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12: Hunger pains vs. Hunger pangs

“Pang” means a “sudden spasm of pain.” Saying “hunger pains” could work, but is much less descriptive. While both experiences are uncomfortable, a way to reduce the painful assault on the grammar guru’s senses is to implement the correct usage of “hunger pangs.”

13: Wet your appetite vs. Whet your appetite

While I won’t stand in the way of someone easing their hunger pangs with a filling beverage, you can’t “wet your appetite” unless you find a way to dunk ravenous hunger in a liquid substance. Instead, the word “whet,” which means “to sharpen or hone,” works better. When you “whet your appetite,” you sharpen it or make it more intense, much as one would use a whetstone on a knife.

14: Pour over vs. Pore over

Trust me! You do not want the librarian chasing you out of the sacred gathering of books because you poured liquid over the cherished Britannica edition. The word you are looking for is “pore,” which means “to study closely.” Just don’t waste too much time poring over your pores. Invest in a good dermatologist instead.

15: Tow the Line vs. Toe the Line

The origins of this idiom come from the military. It is thought to mean the practice of arranging one’s feet on a line for inspection. So, literally, to put one’s toe on a line to be examined for a certain standard. It does not mean to drudge along dragging a line.

16: Peak or peek my curiosity vs. Pique my curiosity

It is rude to peek at my curiosity like an exhibition display, or to arrive at the peak of my curiosity by climbing it like a mountain. However, if you would like to pique, or stimulate, my curiosity, than you have my rapt attention.

17: Tongue and cheek vs. Tongue in cheek

While I have never made this a habit as it sounds like a biting hazard, apparently people will stick their tongues in their cheeks when lying or joking. Others obviously aren’t aware of this gesture either, since they mispronounce it “tongue and cheek.”

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18: Take for granite vs. Take for granted

The word “grant” means “to accord as a favor or privilege.” The word “granite” is a stone used to remodel your kitchen counter. Now, you can take for granted the beautiful granite, but that’s about as far as you can go.

19: On tender hooks vs. On tenterhooks

Have you ever met a tender hook? I haven’t. Most of the hooks I’ve encountered are hard, sharp, and not exactly on the dainty side. The phrase, which means “to be kept in a state of suspense,” is “on tenterhooks.” Tenterhooks are not encountered in the hardware store today, so let me give you some background: a tenterhook was a medieval tool used for making cloth. These small hooks hung fabric that was stretched for the manufacturing processes, so the cloth was literally “left hanging.”

20: To give someone free reign vs. To give someone free rein

This is another example where the incorrect usage garners some acknowledgment, but a spelling error is to blame for the misunderstanding. Most people think that to “give someone free reign” means that they are allowed royal power to do whatever they want, like a king reigning over his subjects. However, originally, it came from the days when people rode horses: When a horse encounters tricky terrain, the rider often loosens the reins to allow the horse to navigate on its own and trusts the animal’s judgement. So, the correct usage is to give someone “free rein.”

21: Fit as a fiddle

This is another phrase where the meaning is no longer the same as when it originated. “Fit” in this context doesn’t mean “healthy.” Its original meaning was “suitable or as appropriate as can be.” This expression is still used in phrases such as “being fit for a king.” In the 16th century, it was originally “as right as a fiddle.” So, in case you were confused, a fiddle has nothing to do with your amazing six-pack abs.

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Sarah Hansen

A corporate-sales professional turned entrepreneur

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Last Updated on December 2, 2018

7 Public Speaking Techniques To Help Connect With Your Audience

7 Public Speaking Techniques To Help Connect With Your Audience

When giving a presentation or speech, you have to engage your audience effectively in order to truly get your point across. Unlike a written editorial or newsletter, your speech is fleeting; once you’ve said everything you set out to say, you don’t get a second chance to have your voice heard in that specific arena.

You need to make sure your audience hangs on to every word you say, from your introduction to your wrap-up. You can do so by:

1. Connecting them with each other

Picture your typical rock concert. What’s the first thing the singer says to the crowd after jumping out on stage? “Hello (insert city name here)!” Just acknowledging that he’s coherent enough to know where he is is enough for the audience to go wild and get into the show.

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It makes each individual feel as if they’re a part of something bigger. The same goes for any public speaking event. When an audience hears, “You’re all here because you care deeply about wildlife preservation,” it gives them a sense that they’re not just there to listen, but they’re there to connect with the like-minded people all around them.

2. Connect with their emotions

Speakers always try to get their audience emotionally involved in whatever topic they’re discussing. There are a variety of ways in which to do this, such as using statistics, stories, pictures or videos that really show the importance of the topic at hand.

For example, showing pictures of the aftermath of an accident related to drunk driving will certainly send a specific message to an audience of teenagers and young adults. While doing so might be emotionally nerve-racking to the crowd, it may be necessary to get your point across and engage them fully.

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3. Keep going back to the beginning

Revisit your theme throughout your presentation. Although you should give your audience the credit they deserve and know that they can follow along, linking back to your initial thesis can act as a subconscious reminder of why what you’re currently telling them is important.

On the other hand, if you simply mention your theme or the point of your speech at the beginning and never mention it again, it gives your audience the impression that it’s not really that important.

4. Link to your audience’s motivation

After you’ve acknowledged your audience’s common interests in being present, discuss their motivation for being there. Be specific. Using the previous example, if your audience clearly cares about wildlife preservation, discuss what can be done to help save endangered species’ from extinction.

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Don’t just give them cold, hard facts; use the facts to make a point that they can use to better themselves or the world in some way.

5. Entertain them

While not all speeches or presentations are meant to be entertaining in a comedic way, audiences will become thoroughly engaged in anecdotes that relate to the overall theme of the speech. We discussed appealing to emotions, and that’s exactly what a speaker sets out to do when he tells a story from his past or that of a well-known historical figure.

Speakers usually tell more than one story in order to show that the first one they told isn’t simply an anomaly, and that whatever outcome they’re attempting to prove will consistently reoccur, given certain circumstances.

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6. Appeal to loyalty

Just like the musician mentioning the town he’s playing in will get the audience ready to rock, speakers need to appeal to their audience’s loyalty to their country, company, product or cause. Show them how important it is that they’re present and listening to your speech by making your words hit home to each individual.

In doing so, the members of your audience will feel as if you’re speaking directly to them while you’re addressing the entire crowd.

7. Tell them the benefits of the presentation

Early on in your presentation, you should tell your audience exactly what they’ll learn, and exactly how they’ll learn it. Don’t expect them to listen if they don’t have clear-cut information to listen for. On the other hand, if they know what to listen for, they’ll be more apt to stay engaged throughout your entire presentation so they don’t miss anything.

Featured photo credit: Flickr via farm4.staticflickr.com

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