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!
(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.
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.
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.”
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.