Last updated on April 25, 2017
Misused Phrases, Take 2
It does so irk me when people get these wrong, so we’re taking another crack at a few more misused phrases.
When I have my editor hat on and see idioms and expressions mangled into misused phrases? They make me cringe and I develop an eye twitch. If you’re incapable of absorbing why it’s bad to use these the wrong way or can’t understand the meaning change between the improper use compared with what these expressions actually mean, please, do us a favour… back away slowly from your keyboard and stop writing these things. And stop making memes out of them!
You’ll be doing the world a favour.
Understanding what’s meant by each of these time-worn expressions is the key to using them well and will help prevent your turning them into another one of the misused phrases that permeate our current version of English. As a writer, honestly, do you want to sound uneducated and have people wonder about your upbringing?
Seriously, though, this isn’t meant to be a grammar lesson. Language and communication is a constantly evolving thing and should change over time. This is about making sure if you use expressions everyone knows by heart, that you use them well. Don’t make an arse out of yourself by perpetuating misused phrases.
I can’t say it enough – overall, it’s not a good idea to throw any overused expressions into your writing. They take away from the original content you worked so hard to create (unless you’re using them in dialogue). Always be original wherever you can to make your writing come alive.
As I did the last time, you’ll find the misused phrases noted first followed by the correct phrase with a short paragraph of explanation below it. Learn well, little ones!
More Misused Phrases – explanation and correction
Hunger pains vs Hunger pangs
- While “pangs” are a type of pain, this is a descriptive expression referring to a particular kind of pain. A “pang” is a sudden sharp feeling, as in the kind you get when you haven’t eaten in a long while. Saying “hunger pains” while not wholly incorrect, is not how this descriptive expression goes.
Another thing coming vs another think coming
- Bet you thought that was supposed to be the other way around, eh? Well, you’re wrong! Since we’re generally lazy, we never say the entire phrase, but if we did, it would make a hell of a lot more sense. The whole phrase is “If that’s what you think, you’ve got another think coming”, which simply means if you have an incorrect thought, you’d better think again, smartypants!
Escape goat vs A scapegoat
- If you have an escape goat, you probably want to build a higher fence around its enclosure or start calling it Houdini or Chris Angel. The beginnings of this phrase actually do refer to goats and comes from the Old Testament in the Bible – Leviticus 16:8,10,26. On the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), the Jewish chief priest would confess all the sins of the Israelites over the head of a sacrificial goat and then drive it into the wilderness (to symbolically take the sins away). In the modern world, a “scapegoat” is someone who is innocent and blamed for the wrongdoing of others. Makes sense, right?
Wet your appetite vs Whet your appetite
- Some confusion with this may be from mixing the two expressions “whet your appetite” and “wet your whistle”. They have no connection to each other. At its simplest, the now-uncommon spoken word “whet” is being mistaken for “wet”. The phrase “wet your whistle” was first noted in 1386, and simply means to take a drink with the “whistle” being the throat or the voice. Though not quite as old, “whet your appetite” has also been around a long while and first noted in writing in 1688 by Thomas Shadwell. In the correct use of this phrase, the word “whet” alludes to the sharpening of tools on a whetstone. This makes “whet your appetite” mean to “sharpen your appetite”, as in with an hors d’oeuvre or pre-dinner glass of wine.
Tow the line vs Toe the line
- The correct use of this phrase “toe the line” has its roots in the military. It means to conform to a rule or standard as in when soldiers were made to arrange their feet in perfect alignment when they stood in line for inspection. To “tow” something means to haul or drag something behind you. The change of the word “tow” for “toe” definitely changes the meaning here and makes it nonsensical.
Wait with baited breath vs Wait with bated breath
- My maternal grandfather was a satirical and well-spoken sort who sometimes mocked the wrong use of this expression with the more literal “I’m waiting with a worm on my tongue”. To “bait” something means, in this sense, to use something to entice or to lure as in when you put a worm on a hook to entice a fish. “bate” is a shortened form of the word “abate” which means to be held off or postponed. So, what does this expression say then? When you “wait with bated breath”, you are going to hold off on the gasp of surprise you would have had until a later time when the person you’re conversing with reveals the astounding or anticipated information.
Waiting on tenderhooks vs Waiting on tenterhooks
- Trust me, there are no such things as “tenderhooks”. In our modern society, things like “tenterhooks” are foreign, because these objects are no longer in our day-to-day – no wonder people get this one wrong. What the heck is a “tenterhook”? Tenterhooks are hooks attached to wooden frames used for stretching cloth. When we say we’re waiting on tenterhooks, we mean that someone’s emotions are uncomfortably strung-out much like a piece of cloth stretched tight on tenterhooks. I predict this phrase will fall out of use in the next one or two hundred years along with a few others due to the lack of context for the words they contain in our modern society.
Play it by air vs Play it by ear
- “play it by air”… like air guitar? This is nonsense. To play something by “ear” means without needing the sheet music, so what we can extrapolate from that is that it means to play without a predetermined course. The way we use this expression in everyday language refers to deciding how to deal with a situation as it develops, making changes and decisions on the fly without a concrete plan.
What comes around goes around vs What goes around comes around
- “What comes around goes around” is sometimes said backward for “What goes around comes around”. “What goes around comes around” is another cultural description for karma that expresses the concept, if you are not a kind person and what you give out is negative, bad things will come to you and if you’re a good and kind person and that is what you reflect outward, then good things will come to you. It might be helpful to remember which way around to express this if you think on what “goes” as what you give out and what “comes” as what is returned to you by the universe. The personal action of what “goes” out must occur first in order to receive the return of what “comes” back, either negative or positive.
The spitting image = The spit and image
- I’ll give you a break on this one. This phrase’s origin is in the book of Genesis in the Bible and refers to God making man out of spit and mud in His image. We use this phrase to describe someone who we think looks exactly like another, an exact double. “spitting image” is the modern form of the idiom, so you wouldn’t be incorrect as it’s been in use for about a century now. If you’re a purist and like to stick to the original, then off you go and it’s also still valid.
It’s a doggy dog world vs It’s a dog-eat-dog world
- Where is this “doggy dog world” of which you speak? I like dogs – can we go there? All joking aside, this makes no sense at all. This particular expression has its roots in observations put forth by Marcus Tarentius Varro waaaay back in 43BC. While making his point that human beings are less principled about destroying their own kind than any other animals, he said that even “a dog will not eat a dog”. By the 16th century, the phrase was being used as a metaphor for ruthless competition and today, we still use this phrase to describe ruthless behaviour. The correct way to use this phrase (if you must) is “It’s a dog-eat-dog world”.
Sitting in the cashbird seat vs Sitting in the catbird seat
- I have no idea what a “cashbird” is, but I can tell you, if you’re using it in this phrase, you’re wrong. Stop it now. “Sitting in the catbird seat” means that you’re in a good position. The probable source of this expression is from a North American bird species, likely of the group of birds called “mimic thrushes” that mimic the sounds of other animals, like a cat’s meow. These “catbirds” like to seek out the highest perches from which to sing and display themselves. If you’re sitting in the “catbird seat”, then you’re likely doing very well for yourself, far above everyone else.
Mute point vs Moot point
- The word mute describes being unable to speak, so unless you’re talking about a point with its tongue cut out, you’re wrong. As an adjective, the word “moot” has several meanings from having no significance to being open for debate or argument. As a noun, its roots are in the law and referring to hypothetical cases law students argue over as an exercise. As a verb, it means to think about carefully and weigh the consequences of an action. For our modern purposes, this expression takes its roots from the legal adjective meaning and so the phrase “moot point” in modern vernacular means an irrelevant point or topic of discussion.
Case and point vs Case in point
- “Case and point” – which case are you referring to and why are you pointing at it? This is simply incorrect. The expression “Case in point” is for when a specific instance serves as evidence for a point you are trying to make.
Pour over vs Pore over
- If you’re “pouring” over anything, what you’re saying is that you’re causing something (liquid, people, insects, whatever) to flow profusely over them. If you’re doing this at work to that report you’ve been working on, you may short-out your laptop or get your printed documents soaking wet (or covered in footprints even!). To “pore over” something means to focus or direct your attention on something, as in when you’re concentrating hard.
Slight of hand vs Sleight of hand
- True, magicians are known for their slight hands, the slender and nimble fingers that allow them to perform “sleight of hand”, but using the word “slight” in this expression is incorrect. “Slight” means slim, thin or svelte, which would make that phrase make no sense unless you’re actually describing someone with skinny hands. The word “sleight” means dexterity in the more negative sense of that, as in deception. Okay if you’re watching magic tricks by an illusionist, though sucks pretty hard if you’re watching your accountant make your money disappear.
A blessing in the skies vs A blessing in disguise
- I’m not sure what you have falling out of the sky around your area, but that’s not where blessings usually come from. Okay, unless there’s a drought and then it began to rain where you would be well within your rights to misuse this phrase in a satirical manner to fit the situation. If you don’t live in the desert and there’s no drought where you are, then you’ll want to be sure to use this phrase correctly as “a blessing in disguise”. This simply means something that seemed bad or unlucky at first later turned out to be a good thing.
Bonus points if you know that words that sound the same, but have different meanings are called homonyms!
Misused phrases? No more of those. Now armed with this information, you may proceed to use some of these idioms in a much more effective manner. But again, try to avoid them. Let your awesome ideas speak for themselves.
[Related article: Misused Phrases – 15 of the kind everyone knows by heart]