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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 January 15, 2021

7 Ways To Have More Confident Body Language

7 Ways To Have More Confident Body Language

The popular idiomatic saying that “actions speak louder than words” has been around for centuries, but even to this day, most people struggle with at least one area of nonverbal communication. Consequently, many of us aspire to have more confident body language but don’t have the knowledge and tools necessary to change what are largely unconscious behaviors.

Given that others’ perceptions of our competence and confidence are predominantly influenced by what we do with our faces and bodies, it’s important to develop greater self-awareness and consciously practice better posture, stance, eye contact, facial expressions, hand movements, and other aspects of body language.

Posture

First things first: how is your posture? Let’s start with a quick self-assessment of your body.

  • Are your shoulders slumped over or rolled back in an upright posture?
  • When you stand up, do you evenly distribute your weight or lean excessively to one side?
  • Does your natural stance place your feet relatively shoulder-width apart or are your feet and legs close together in a closed-off position?
  • When you sit, does your lower back protrude out in a slumped position or maintain a straight, spine-friendly posture in your seat?

All of these are important considerations to make when evaluating and improving your posture and stance, which will lead to more confident body language over time. If you routinely struggle with maintaining good posture, consider buying a posture trainer/corrector, consulting a chiropractor or physical therapist, stretching daily, and strengthening both your core and back muscles.

Facial Expressions

Are you prone to any of the following in personal or professional settings?

  • Bruxism (tight, clenched jaw or grinding teeth)
  • Frowning and/or furrowing brows
  • Avoiding direct eye contact and/or staring at the ground

If you answered “yes” to any of these, then let’s start by examining various ways in which you can project confident body language through your facial expressions.

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1. Understand How Others Perceive Your Facial Expressions

A December 2020 study by UC Berkeley and Google researchers utilized a deep neural network to analyze facial expressions in six million YouTube clips representing people from over 140 countries. The study found that, despite socio-cultural differences, people around the world tended to use about 70% of the same facial expressions in response to different emotional stimuli and situations.[1]

The study’s researchers also published a fascinating interactive map to demonstrate how their machine learning technology assessed various facial expressions and determined subtle differences in emotional responses.

This study highlights the social importance of facial expressions because whether or not we’re consciously aware of them—by gazing into a mirror or your screen on a video conferencing platform—how we present our faces to others can have tremendous impacts on their perceptions of us, our confidence, and our emotional states. This awareness is the essential first step towards

2. Relax Your Face

New research on bruxism and facial tension found the stresses and anxieties of Covid-19 lockdowns led to considerable increases in orofacial pain, jaw-clenching, and teeth grinding, particularly among women.[2]

The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research estimates that more than 10 million Americans alone have temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJ syndrome), and facial tension can lead to other complications such as insomnia, wrinkles, dry skin, and dark, puffy bags under your eyes.[3])

To avoid these unpleasant outcomes, start practicing progressive muscle relaxation techniques and taking breaks more frequently throughout the day to moderate facial tension.[4] You should also try out some biofeedback techniques to enhance your awareness of involuntary bodily processes like facial tension and achieve more confident body language as a result.[5]

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3. Improve Your Eye Contact

Did you know there’s an entire subfield of kinesic communication research dedicated to eye movements and behaviors called oculesics?[6] It refers to various communication behaviors including direct eye contact, averting one’s gaze, pupil dilation/constriction, and even frequency of blinking. All of these qualities can shape how other people perceive you, which means that eye contact is yet another area of nonverbal body language that we should be more mindful of in social interactions.

The ideal type (direct/indirect) and duration of eye contact depends on a variety of factors, such as cultural setting, differences in power/authority/age between the parties involved, and communication context. Research has shown that differences in the effects of eye contact are particularly prominent when comparing East Asian and Western European/North American cultures.[7]

To improve your eye contact with others, strive to maintain consistent contact for at least 3 to 4 seconds at a time, consciously consider where you’re looking while listening to someone else, and practice eye contact as much as possible (as strange as this may seem in the beginning, it’s the best way to improve).

3. Smile More

There are many benefits to smiling and laughing, and when it comes to working on more confident body language, this is an area that should be fun, low-stakes, and relatively stress-free.

Smiling is associated with the “happiness chemical” dopamine and the mood-stabilizing hormone, serotonin. Many empirical studies have shown that smiling generally leads to positive outcomes for the person smiling, and further research has shown that smiling can influence listeners’ perceptions of our confidence and trustworthiness as well.

4. Hand Gestures

Similar to facial expressions and posture, what you do with your hands while speaking or listening in a conversation can significantly influence others’ perceptions of you in positive or negative ways.

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It’s undoubtedly challenging to consciously account for all of your nonverbal signals while simultaneously trying to stay engaged with the verbal part of the discussion, but putting in the effort to develop more bodily awareness now will make it much easier to unconsciously project more confident body language later on.

5. Enhance Your Handshake

In the article, “An Anthropology of the Handshake,” University of Copenhagen social anthropology professor Bjarke Oxlund assessed the future of handshaking in wake of the Covid-19 pandemic:[8]

“Handshakes not only vary in function and meaning but do so according to social context, situation and scale. . . a public discussion should ensue on the advantages and disadvantages of holding on to the tradition of shaking hands as the conventional gesture of greeting and leave-taking in a variety of circumstances.”

It’s too early to determine some of the ways in which Covid-19 has permanently changed our social norms and professional etiquette standards, but it’s reasonable to assume that handshaking may retain its importance in American society even after this pandemic. To practice more confident body language in the meantime, the video on the science of the perfect handshake below explains what you need to know.

6. Complement Your Verbals With Hand Gestures

As you know by now, confident communication involves so much more than simply smiling more or sounding like you know what you’re talking about. What you do with your hands can be particularly influential in how others perceive you, whether you’re fidgeting with an object, clenching your fists, hiding your hands in your pockets, or calmly gesturing to emphasize important points you’re discussing.

Social psychology researchers have found that “iconic gestures”—hand movements that appear to be meaningfully related to the speaker’s verbal content—can have profound impacts on listeners’ information retention. In other words, people are more likely to engage with you and remember more of what you said when you speak with complementary hand gestures instead of just your voice.[9]

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Further research on hand gestures has shown that even your choice of the left or right hand for gesturing can influence your ability to clearly convey information to listeners, which supports the notion that more confident body language is readily achievable through greater self-awareness and deliberate nonverbal actions.[10]

Final Takeaways

Developing better posture, enhancing your facial expressiveness, and practicing hand gestures can vastly improve your communication with other people. At first, it will be challenging to consciously practice nonverbal behaviors that many of us are accustomed to performing daily without thinking about them.

If you ever feel discouraged, however, remember that there’s no downside to consistently putting in just a little more time and effort to increase your bodily awareness. With the tips and strategies above, you’ll be well on your way to embracing more confident body language and amplifying others’ perceptions of you in no time.

More Tips on How to Develop a Confident Body Language

Featured photo credit: Maria Lupan via unsplash.com

Reference

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