After my last post on “words you might not know you’ve been saying incorrectly,” a number of commenters posted that they often hear the same sense of malapropism applied to phrases. American English is full of idioms, as the language changes with everyday use, and these are just some of the phrases that vary by region, class and cultural background. All of them have become “accepted” over time, but many of them started out meaning something very different (see: #35). Some of them are just plain wrong and will be until the end of time (like #5). Others are just hilarious (#6).
Here are 44 common phrases that you might be saying or using wrong, some of which I weren’t clear on until researching this article (#34). Which common malapropisms or abused phrases bother you? Leave your own grammar pet peeves in the comments.
1. Saying it wrong: “Chester drawers”
Doing it right: “Chest of drawers”
Despite what my mother thinks on the issue (who is a staunch defender of the malapropism), you do not own drawers that belong to Chester. If you do, you may want to give them back. A dresser is literally a chest made of out drawers, and the right way just makes a lot more sense. Sorry, Mom.
2. Saying it wrong: “For all intensive purposes”
Doing it right: “For all intents and purposes”
If something is intensive, that indicates that it’s rigorous and focused, as it comes from the word “intense.” Thus, you could have an intensive purpose if that entailed getting Ryan Gosling to marry you (because who doesn’t want that), but it’s not the same thing as “for all intents and purposes.” If you were to say “Ryan Gosling and I are married “for all intents and purposes,” you would be basically married or as our friends at Cambridge put it married “in all the most important ways.”
3. Saying it wrong: “Statue of limitations”
Doing it right: “Statute of limitations”
If you need some help with this one, turn to Seinfeld. Let Kramer be your guide of what not to do.
4. Saying it wrong: “I could care less”
Doing it right: “I couldn’t care less”
“I could care less” doesn’t make a lot of sense as a phrase. To be an appropriate put down, you want to indicate that you have no fucks left to give and your esteem is at its lowest possible level. Thus, if you’re saying “I couldn’t care less,” it means exactly that. It is impossible for you to give less of a shit about this.
5. Saying it wrong: “Warshing machine”
Doing it right: “Washing machine”
You cannot put something in a “warshing machine,” because it doesn’t exist. You also cannot go to “Warshington” or “Warshington D.C.” Like “sherbet,” you’re adding an “r” where it doesn’t need to be. However, try explaining this to people back where I’m from. Kentucky and Southern Ohio, drop those “r”s.
6. Saying it wrong: “Suppository of information”
Doing it right: “Repository of information”
This is my favorite malapropism ever, and allegedly once used by ex-mayor of Chicago Richard Raley, whose poops must be full of secrets. A suppository helps with hemorrhoids or constipation (or an anal dildo if you’re really lonely) — to break up your shit. you want to use repository instead, which is a container that stores things. Thus, you can have a repository of poop, but not a suppository of information.
7. Saying it wrong: “Fall by the waste side”
Doing it right: “Fall by the wayside”
To “fall by the wayside” means that you aren’t keeping up with a group, like in jogging. The person lagging behind in gym class during the mile (which was me) would have been “falling by the wayside.” If they “fell by the waste side,” they would have done so in a pile of trash. As if anything could have made gym worse.
8. Saying it wrong: “Circumvent the globe”
Doing it right: “Circumnavigate the globe”
The definition of “circumvent” is to “evade” or “go around,” as in dodging an obstacle or problem. Thus, if you see your ex in public with their new boyfriend, you may want to circumvent that situation by walking another direction or turning the fuck around. You cannot, however, evade the Earth. You’re oo it.
9. Saying it wrong: “Self-depreciating”
Doing it right: “Self-deprecating”
Self-deprecating means to take oneself down or undervalue oneself, which makes it closely related to “depreciating,” even if saying that version is wrong. “Depreciating” is an economic term used to indicate that the value of something drops over time, like Jessica Alba or Fred Durst’s musical career. You can diminish your value (a face tattoo is a great place to start), but if you’re using “self-depreciate” to make fun of yourself, you’re diminishing your value in the wrong way.
10 .Saying it wrong: “Irregardless”
Doing it right: “Regardless”
Just because Gretchen Weiners says it doesn’t mean it’s correct, even if it’s a Mean Girls quote. “Ir” is a prefix that negates the phrase that comes before it, which is unnecessary when “less” is already doing the same thing. You could say “irregard,” I suppose, but that also sounds stupid. “Irregardless” might not be in the rules of feminism, but it’s the rules of English.
11. Saying it wrong: “Towards” / “Anyways”
Doing it right: “Toward” / “Anyway”
This is just an unnecessary “s” problem, which plagues many a word in the English language. “Towards” is a common British version of “toward” but unless you are British (and if you are, call me), you shouldn’t be using it. It’s not an affectation (ala “favourite”); it’s just not correct.
12. Saying it wrong: “Another thing coming”
Doing it right: “Another think coming”
Okay, I’ll admit. This malapropism is infuriating, and the wrong version just sounds more right. The only way this makes sense is if you use the whole phrase as originally intended. The complete phrase goes “If that’s what you think, you’ve got another think coming.” Translated from stupid, this means that if you have an incorrect thought, you better think again. I don’t like it, but here we are.
13. Saying it wrong: “Escape goat”
Doing it right: “Scapegoat”
For the record, like “doggy-dog world,” I’ve never heard “escape goat” in real life, but I kind of love it. Where do I get an escape goat? Do they have wings? Can we reenact Chicken Run?
14. Saying it wrong: “Jive with”
Doing it right: “Jibe with”
I get where this comes from. When someone says they “jive with” something, they mean to indicate that they are “cool with it” or can “get down with it.” This is similar to the actual phrase “jibe with,” which means “to agree with.” So, when Barack Obama says he believes in equal marriage, that all people be able to have whatever state-sponsored lesbian commitment ceremony they choose, I “jibe with” that. But I don’t “jive with” it. That’s racist.
15. Saying it wrong: “Make due”
Doing it right: “Make do”
Literally, to “make due” would be to force something to be turned it at an appropriate time. If you were checking a book out from a library, the librarian on staff will make your selection due on a certain date. However, your librarian will likely be “making do” with the slashing of funding for education and the arts instead — or making the best of a situation. “Make do” is short for “make do well enough.”
16. Saying it wrong: “All of my children” / “Outside of”
Doing it right: “All my children” / “Outside”
In such phrases, Americans have a tendency of inserting an extra “of,” which is just not needed here. Think of our beloved Erica Kane, played by the seemingly ageless Susan Lucci. Did she lose a million Emmys acting in “All of My Children?” No. She lost them on “All My Children.” Let soap opera be your guiding light through all things.
17. Saying it wrong: “Runner-ups”
Doing it right: “Runners-up”
There’s a great exchange between Rory and Lorelai on Gilmore Girls where they argue over the plural of “cul-de-sac,” which is “culs-de-sac.” This makes Lorelai wonder whether other words can be pluralized in the middle, like “wheelsbarrow,” and Rory explains that it’s French. Next time someone asks you about “runners-up,” I suggest you just say, “It’s English.”
18. Spelling it wrong: “Peak/peek my interest”
Doing it right: “Pique my interest”
This kind of makes sense, if you mean to say that your interest in something has reached its highest point. However, pique means to “provoke or arouse,” which makes more sense in context. “Peek” just sounds creepy and wrong.
19. Spelling it wrong: “Scott free”
Doing it right: “Scot free”
I actually know someone named “Scott Free,” and every time someone misspells it, I just think of him. Remember: You’re not freeing our friend Scott over here. If you’re getting off “scott free,” you’re getting away with something with few consequences, like our friend George Zimmerman.
20. Spelling it wrong: “Baited breath”
Doing it right: “Bated breath”
Were your breath “baited,” that means that your breathing is currently being taunted or tormented, which could be true. I don’t know your life. However, it’s more likely that with “baited breath,” you are waiting in suspense to learn the outcome of something. Don’t bully your breaths. Let them live.
21. Spelling it wrong: “Without further adieu”
Doing it right: “Without further ado”
You can remember this as “without further interruption,” which is what “ado” suggests. In the title “Much Ado About Nothing,” Shakespeare wanted to suggest that the entire strife between Benedick and Beatrice is a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. If he said “Much Adieu,” they would just be saying goodbye a lot. That would have made for a very strange play.
22. Spelling it wrong: “Free reign”
Doing it right: “Free rein”
It’s easy to see the misconception here. By saying “free reign,” you want to indicate that a ruler or royal has the ability to do whatever (s)he pleases when it comes to their kingdom, having “free reign” over the land. But that’s not what it’s meant to indicate. “Free rein” comes from equestrian jargon, meaning to give your horse freedom of motion, holding loosely the reins to go easy on ol’ Black Beauty.
23. Saying it wrong: “Hunger pains”
Doing it right: “Hunger pangs”
Like many phrases on this list, “hunger pains” is a perfectly sensible phrase to use, and anyone who has ever had to go on a religious fast knows the feeling of pain when you haven’t eaten for 48 hours. To all my friends who fast for Ramadan every year, you’re way more badass than I will ever be. However, hunger pangs is the original phrase, indicating the sharp jolts you feel from hunger. Yes, this is pain. I realize. No, I didn’t not make up the English language.
24. Saying it wrong: “Step foot”
Doing it right: “Set foot”
“Step foot” isn’t horribly wrong, and if the occupants of the house in The Conjuring said they would never “step foot in that home again,” no one would notice the difference — just the demons. What you mean to say is that you would never again place one of your feet inside a haunted house (if you know what’s good for you), meaning you would never “set” your foot inside it. Stepping your foot just sounds slightly awkward.
25. Saying it wrong: “Should of”
Doing it right: “Should have”
This is a mistake that people more often use in speech — less so in print. It’s likely just due to vocal laziness and bad practice (personally, I can’t say “get rid” to save my life) than a misunderstanding of how verbs work. “Of” is a preposition, not an auxiliary verb like “should.”
26. Saying it wrong: “Wreck havoc”
Doing it right: “Wreak havoc”
To “wreck havoc” would mean the opposite of what the speaker intends. They mean to say that whomever is doing the wreaking is going on a “rampage of destruction,” but wrecking it would mean to destroy it or thwart it. And who wants that? Instead use wreak meaning “to inflict.”
27. Saying it wrong, sometimes: “Try and”
Doing it right: “Try to”
“And” is often used in place of a preposition after a verb, but the more appropriate version is to use “to” — in most cases. (Like almost every rule in the English language, it seems to get broken anyway — whenever English feels like it.) So if you’re saying that you plan to “try and go to the park,” that accidentally splits up your phrasing, making it sound like two different actions. They are not independent. You are doing the trying in order to go to the park. And why not? It’s a beautiful day. Get outside.
28. Saying it wrong, sometimes: “Doing good”
Doing it right: “Doing well”
This depends on what you mean to say. If someone asks you how you are and you respond, “I’m good,” this is incorrect. You need an adverb here, or else you mean that you embody the properties of goodness. Take if from Tracy Jordan: “Superman does good. You do well.”
29. Saying it wrong: “Nipped in the butt”
Doing it right: “Nipped in the bud”
Okay, this is a good one, too. The verb “to nip” means to seize, to pinch or to bite. So if you want to nip something in the butt, you better be prepared to be slapped. However, if you want to “nip something in the bud,” you’re squashing it or taking care of it. Perhaps you are doing both? I don’t know. I don’t know your life.
30. Saying it wrong: “On accident”
Doing it right: “By accident”
This is one of those dumb English language things that makes me feel sorry for English language learners. You can do something “on purpose,” but English doesn’t allow you to do it “on accident.” You do it “by accident,” just like you don’t do it “by purpose.” That just sounds silly.
31. Saying it wrong: “Beckon call”
Doing it right: “Beck and call”
To be at someone’s “beck and call” means to wait on them hand and foot or to be ready in case you are summoned. The word “beck,” meaning a nod or some other signal that you’re required, actually comes from “beckon,” so it’s not strange that “beckon call” ended up in parlance. It’s intended to mean that you’re being beckoned (or called) over. However, it’s English. Just because it makes sense doesn’t mean it’s right.
32. Saying it wrong: “Safe haven”
Doing it right: “Haven”
“Safe haven” isn’t really wrong. You can say it. It’s just redundant. It would be like saying “scarlet red.” Scarlet is already a form of red, so it’s a little more explanation than you actually need. The definition of “haven” implies that it’s safe already. The more alarming thing is if it were an unsafe haven, which would defeat the purpose and not be a haven at all.
33. Saying it wrong: “Mute point”
Doing it right: “Moot point”
A mute point would imply that the point were unable to articulate itself due to an impairment that leaves it speechless. Thus, unless your point is learning speech with Annie Sullivan, you have a “moot” point on your hands, a legal term dating back to the 16th century that means “open to debate.”
34. Saying it wrong: “Case and point”
Doing it right: “Case in point”
The former would imply that your case and your point are two different things, a duo ala Mary and Rhoda. No offense to Mary Tyler Moore, but one would want to say “case in point,” meaning that you are bringing up an example that proves what you are attempting to argue.
35. Saying it wrong: “Less than 140 characters”
Doing it right: “Fewer than 140 characters”
Sorry, Twitter users. When you want to keep those updates short, you want them to be “fewer than 140 characters.” Fewer is used to refer to multiples of something, meaning that you hope Lebron scores “fewer” than 30 points in a game — or God doesn’t exist. When you say “less,” you’re talking about a whole, one singular unit. If you’re in salary negotiations with your boss and he gives you a smaller figure than you desire, it’s less than what you wanted — not fewer.
36. Using it wrong: “Fit as a fiddle”
Say instead: “In good health”
If you’re reading this, you’re using. Almost everyone gets it wrong — including yours truly. this phrase wrong. The real phrase “fit as a fiddle” means that something is “perfect” for its intended use — not “fit” meaning healthy but fit as in suitable or appropriate, like “fit for a king.” So “fit as a fiddle” really means “as perfect as possible.” The more you know.
37. Saying it wrong: “Old adage”
Doing it right: “Adage”
This is another redundancy thing. You can say “old adage;” you just don’t really need to. The word “adage” already implies that the saying or phrase is old. (Have you ever said the phrase “new adage?”) You can save yourself a syllable by just dropping the “old” altogether. And if you find one of them new adages, you let me now.
38. Saying it wrong: “Extract revenge”
Doing it right: “Exact revenge”
If you were “extracting” revenge, that means that you would be drilling the surface of the planet for it in order to burn for fossil fuel — and unless you’re in a Tarantino movie, I don’t think revenge works like that. According to our friends at Merriam-Webster, exact means to “to call for forcibly or urgently and obtain.” So you could “exact” oil, especially if you’re George W. Bush, but you cannot extract revenge.
39. Saying it wrong: “The spitting image”
Doing it right: “The spit and image”
To me, both versions of this phrase sound pretty silly. What images have you been spitting on recently? I’d prefer to keep my spit in my mouth — and I don’t want to be compared to someone’s spit. The original phrase “spit and image” comes from the Bible, where God made Adam out of “spit and mud” in order to make him in his own image. God didn’t spit on him, as the modern idiom seems to suggest, but if you read the Old Testament, trust me, he could have done a lot worse.
40. Saying it wrong: “Mano a mano”
Doing it right: “Man to man”
For loyal viewers of Arrested Development, you know that adding an “o” to the end of things doesn’t necessarily make them Spanish. If you wanted to say “man to man,” you would say “hombre a hombre” — not hand to hand. “Mano a mano” may imply that you want to fight, instead of discuss things in person.
41. Saying it wrong: “Begging the question”
Doing it right: “Raising the question”
If you want to bring up a question you have on your mind, you shouldn’t “beg” the question — because that means something very different. “Beg the question” is a term that indicates someone’s argument has a conclusion that lacks adequate support from its premise. In order cases, this logical fallacy entails simply restating the premise instead of making an actual conclusion or having a conclusion that’s totally unrelated to the initial. Welcome to every Freshman comp class.
42. Saying it wrong: “On tender hooks”
Doing it right: “On tenterhooks”
Where have you ever met a tender hook? I’m sorry, but even the gentlest hook is still pretty sharp. Hooks aren’t exactly great cuddlers. Instead, “on tenterhooks” is used to indicate suspense — that you’re waiting for something anxiously. A “tenterhook” is a type of hook used for drying cloth. I don’t know how that’s suspenseful, but maybe you’re drying your laundry with Nathaniel Hawthorne.
43. Saying it wrong: “Near miss”
Doing it right: “Near hit”
If you break down the phrase “near miss,” it doesn’t make a lot of sense. If a car were to “nearly miss” another in an accident, that would tell you there was a collision. It almost missed, but then it didn’t. A “near hit” would indicate instead that the cars nearly collided but evaded the crash at the last second. You’ll never hear anyone say “near miss,” including me, but there you go.
44. Saying it wrong: “Hone in”
Doing it right: “Home in”
In its classical use, the verb hone means to “sharpen with a whetstone,” but in its modern sense, we often say that we are “honing” our skills — refining or perfecting them. This, then, has little to do with “honing in” on something, which means to focus your attention on an event, object or conversation — if you like to drop eaves. Instead, you would want to “home in” on it. It sounds silly, but then again, so do a lot of things that are technically correct.
Bonus: Saying it wrong: “One in the same”
Doing it right: “One and the same”
I want to think the best of you, internet, and that you already know this one, but here goes anyway. The phrase “one and the same” reemphasizes its phrasing to indicate that two things are exactly the same. You could just say “the same,” but the “one” gives it an extra “oomph.” One in the same would imply that thing is inside of itself, which to me, just sounds painful.