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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.

More by this author

Sarah Hansen

A corporate-sales professional turned entrepreneur

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Last Updated on March 25, 2020

How to Crush Your Lack of Motivation and Always Stay Motivated

How to Crush Your Lack of Motivation and Always Stay Motivated

How many times have you not achieved your goals and let yourself down due to your lack of motivation? When you’re not wallowing in sadness and self-pity, you are too busy procrastinating till you can’t anymore and before you know it, you are part of vicious cycle of anxiety and stress.

Whether it’s losing weight or bringing your business to fruition – motivation is essential for growth and success in every sphere of our lives.

That said, it is not easy staying motivated. In order to constantly stay motivated, you need to take ownership of your life and consciously make efforts in that direction.

Well, it’s never too late to take matters in your hands and change the course of your life. Here are 11 effective ways to crush your lack of motivation and always stay motivated:

1. Write Your Goals

The power of writing goals down has always been underestimated. Why write when you can remember, right? Wrong.

Our thoughts are all over the place and the first step to achieve your goals is to organize your thoughts. So, write your goals down, however big or small they might be. Make them as specific as possible and assign deadlines to each of them.

As you write them down and revisit them regularly, they get further drilled in your head, taking you closer to your goals. Doing this small exercise helps you to remain focused, motivated and lets you track your progress with ease.

Start today – take to your laptop or a diary and get down to writing what you wish to achieve in life.

2. Beat Procrastination

Your lack of motivation and procrastination go hand in hand. Every time you procrastinate, your motivation levels take a greater hit. The only way to bring an end to this loop is to stop procrastinating.

Next time you find yourself putting off something for ‘later’, stop and assess the reasons behind it. Get to the root of the cause and eliminate it in order to overcome this poor habit of procrastinating which is sabotaging your life and mental health.

Take a look at this guide and learn how to beat procrastination:

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What Is Procrastination (And the Complete Guide to Stop Procrastinating)

When you finally overcome procrastination, you will realize the positive impact it has on your mood and motivation levels.

3. Celebrate Small Wins

In the quest to achieve the bigger goals in life, we often forget to celebrate the smaller wins along the way. An achievement is an achievement – be it big or small, it deserves to be acknowledged and celebrated.

Finished a project on time? Reward yourself. Managed to run on the treadmill for a good one hour? Pat yourself on the back. Found time to meditate? Celebrate it.

It is these small achievements that reinstate that we are on the right path and take us one step closer to the bigger goals.

So, get into the habit of recognizing and appreciating small wins. You will be surprised to see how this practice helps you stay motivated.

4. Practice Gratitude

It’s easier to whine about what we don’t have rather than counting our blessings. Isn’t it?

Making gratefulness a part of your life is a very important step to retain high motivational levels. It revitalizes our spirits and renews our enthusiasm for life.

So, how do you practice gratitude? For starters, keep a gratitude journal to jot down what you are grateful for, express your gratitude to people you love and spread positivity wherever you go. If you need some inspiration to be thankful for, here it is:

60 Things To Be Thankful For In Life

By doing so, you begin to focus more on what you have rather than what you don’t and that is a great start to stay motivated.

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5. Be Optimistic

Life is not always hunky dory. There will be bad days when things aren’t going in your favor, when you feel lost and all you want to do is give up.

At such times, instead of letting negativity take over your life, adopt an optimistic approach to life. Quit overthinking, ask the right questions and focus on finding solutions.

Yes, there will be hurdles along the way but if you hang on to positive affirmations and hopes, the journey will be a lot smoother. So, with every passing day, sow the seeds of positivity and you are sure to build a positive environment around you.

6. Don’t Dwell on the Past

A lot of times, our lack of motivation stems from the habit of dwelling on the past. This gives rise to fear and regrets, preventing us from making progress in the present day.

Dwelling on the past is nothing but a waste of time. Understand that the past is long gone, and you cannot do anything to change that.

What you can do is make your present day worthwhile. Instead of looking back and having regrets, learn from your mistakes, forgive yourself and move on.

So, the next time you find your mind wandering off to the past, be determined to change the way you think and consciously concentrate on living in the present. This guide can help you:

10 Simple Steps To Let Go Of The Past

7. Face your Fears

You can never find motivation where there is fear. Identify the fear that is pulling you back and tackle it.

If you don’t face your fear head on, you cannot expect to conquer it and renew your motivation.

Ask yourself: What is stopping you? What are you scared of?

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Once you accept your fear, you can work on an action plan and think of solutions to overcome it. This article will give you some effective tips on conquering your fears:

How to Overcome Your Irrational Fears (That Stop You from Succeeding)

Seek external help if required but don’t choose to turn a blind eye over your fears – it will only aggravate matters.

8. Visualize your Success

You must have heard the famous quote, ‘see it to believe it’. That is exactly what visualization is about.

One of the most effective self-motivation techniques, visualizing the process to your desired outcome helps you move in a positive direction and achieve your goal.

Close your eyes and focus all your energies on the minutest of details that will take you where you want to reach. Doing this exercise everyday inspires you to keep going and not lose hope. The vision of attaining success will drive you to do better while instilling belief and confidence.

9. Find Inspiration

Can’t seem to find inspiration inwards? Don’t panic. There are plenty of external sources to gain inspiration from.

From motivational books and quotes to speeches, films and apps – it is a good idea to take help from motivational material to rekindle your spirits and regain your motivation.

Everyone is wired differently. For instance, a self-help book might work for your friend, but it might do nothing to move you. So, find what inspires you and turn to it when you are in desperate need for motivation.

Finding inspiration externally fills you with hope and sometimes that is all you need.

10. Enjoy Downtime

You are clearly exhausted with all the running you’re doing in life. So much, that you don’t even have time to stop and think what’s causing you so much unhappiness. All you know is that you are lacking motivation and everyday seems to have become a struggle.

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Now, that’s certainly not how you should live the rest of your life.

You need to schedule downtime for yourself, relax and give your mind and body some rest. Take a vacation, indulge in hobbies, meet some friends, put your hair down and stop with all the overthinking. It is important to do things that make you happy in order to think clearly and stay motivated.

11. Meditate Regularly

Meditation lets you take control of your mind. It improves focus and concentration while helping you relax.

Whenever you have had a tough day or find your thoughts going places, the best way to calm yourself down is by closing your eyes and meditating. It helps you to remove all the unnecessary frills in life and keeps you on the right track.

Include meditation in your daily schedule and you are sure to see an improvement in your productivity and motivation.

The Bottom Line

Practicing these simple exercises isn’t the tough part, what’s tough is religiously doing them every day.

However, don’t expect to get rid of your lack of motivation overnight. There will still be days when you will be low on energy but by making these conscious efforts to stay motivated, you are sure to see a vast change in your perspective and your response to bad days.

So, start today and be committed to making a positive change in your life.

More Tips About Staying Motivated

Featured photo credit: Sonnie Hiles via unsplash.com

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