Last updated on April 25, 2017
Misused phrases in writing can kill your credibility in a heartbeat. Popular phrases won’t go unnoticed, so it’s important to get these right.
It doesn’t matter what field you’re in, when you use idioms and colloquialisms that have been around from time immemorial, using them incorrectly makes you sound uneducated. Editors hate when people get these wrong. Some of it is our fault, because we don’t speak correctly and then these are repeated incorrectly. And then you see these misused phrases on memes that are then spread around the Internet, thus further perpetuating the mistake.
But that doesn’t change the fact that they’re wrong.
If you’re writing? These should be avoided in general, because they’re overused anyway and that takes away from the (hopefully) awesome original content you’ve created. Be original and lose them from your vocabulary. If you’re throwing them in, because you believe your phrase is weak and you need some nonsensical intensifier, instead, do this… Leave them out, rewrite your phrase using an active rather than passive voice, and let your own words make your statement. Your writing will be stronger.
If you must use them, as in the case where you’re writing dialogue, be sure to get them spot-on. Well, unless you’re going for comedy and stupidity is part of the shtick–in that case, use all the misused phrases all the wrong way for effect. Even then, be sure to do it well or the comedy element will ring false.
There’s about a million, but here’s 15 misused phrases I’ve seen and heard myself. The incorrect usage is noted first followed by the correct phrase and an explanation.
Misused Phrases – explanation and correction
At my beckon call vs At my beck and call
- Hate to break it to you, but “beckon call” doesn’t mean anything in the English language. It’s nonsense. To be at someone’s “beck and call” means to be readily available and ready to obey.
Wreck havoc vs Wreak havoc
- This one never makes sense to me when I hear it. “To wreck havoc” means to destroy chaos and cause more chaos. Hunh? You want to use “wreak havoc” which makes much more sense and would be to “cause to happen” or “to occur as a consequence”.
Sniff the bullet vs Bite the bullet
- In the old days, when army doctors performed operations without drugs on the battlefield, they gave patients a bullet to put between their teeth to help them endure the pain. In that situation, trust me, sniffing that bullet would do little to help the poor grunt getting their leg sawed off. The phrase “bite the bullet” came to be synonymous with forcing oneself through something extremely unpleasant.
Chomping at the bit vs Champing at the bit
- “Champing” refers to a horse jawing loudly around the metal bit in their mouth while “chomping” means to mash into a pulp and is generally reserved for descriptions of what’s done to food. In our modern world where we no longer have contact with horses in our cities and those equine terms have become unfamiliar to us, I’m certain this one will soon be trumped by the popular usage of “chomping”. However, if you want to be accurate in your idioms, use “champing”.
Christmas is like a world wind for me vs Christmas is like a whirlwind for me
- This one I overheard on the subway train. What does that even mean? Is there some new environmental manifestation I don’t know about that consists of wind blowing over the world that only bursts forth at the holiday season? I’m fairly certain this busy person meant whirlwind, likening the increased activity during that busy time of year to a swirling, general craziness around their life.
All of the sudden vs All of a sudden
- My hair stands on end when I hear this one. I’ve heard this on television, from radio announcers, from newscasters and from regular people in general. “the sudden”? To which particular “sudden” would you be referring? While idioms don’t always follow correct grammar rules, in this case, since there is no “particular sudden”, then it must be “a sudden”. And grammatically correct or not, the idiom is “all of a sudden”, meaning, in a sudden moment.
Regarding to vs Regarding
- There is no “to” after using the word “regarding”. It means with regard or relation to or on the subject of. Don’t confuse “regarding to” with “regard to”.
Each one worse than the next vs. Each one worse than the last
- Unless you can see into the future, each thing in succession couldn’t be worse than the thing ahead of it that you haven’t reached yet. This phrase should be correctly used as “Each one worse than the last”.
As useless as tips on a board vs As useless as tits on a boar
- Not sure what “tips on a board” would mean unless you were a restaurant server and talking about underwhelming or useless tips left by patrons? The idiom is referring to a male pig having mammary glands it would have no use for since it can’t produce young. Synonymous with being completely useless. A lot more used by BrE native speakers than North American, but I can tell you, in North America, I’ve heard it wrong in a variety of ways.
Nip it in the butt vs. Nip it in the bud
- If you nipped a plant in the bud, you would prevent it from flowering, which is where this idiom comes from. This phrase is generally used to describe preventing a situation from growing out of control while it’s still manageable. I suppose you could nip a problem in the butt, but not sure what that would get you beyond a pissed off problem with a sore ass.
For all intensive purposes vs. For all intents and purposes
- “Intents and purposes” means “in every practical sense”. If you exchange this with the word “intensive”, you are completely changing the meaning. “Intensive” is an adjective that means strongly or intensely.
Ceases to amaze me vs Never ceases to amaze me
- If you ceased to amaze me, you would have stopped amazing me. Likely the exact opposite of the way you intended to use this phrase. “Never ceases to amaze” means, the amazing behaviour you’re talking about continues and you’re perennially blown away by it.
Bled like a stuffed pig vs Bled like a stuck pig
- Okay, I knew someone who used this phrase incorrectly for a long time while I gritted my teeth until one day I snapped and explained the error and why it was wrong. This phrase is used to describe profuse bleeding, as the kind that ensues when you stick a fat pig with a knife (if you were hunting, etc). Stuffing a pig wouldn’t make it bleed unless, I suppose, you fed it one fuck of a lot of pig slop and it exploded. The phrase correctly used looks like “After the glass broke on my hand while I was washing it in the sink, I bled like a stuck pig!”
I could care less vs. I couldn’t care less
- This one goes wrong more often than you’d imagine. If you could care less, that implies you do actually care a little. When you don’t care a whit, you really couldn’t care less, because you’re already at zero in the caring department. Makes sense, no?
Giving you leadway vs. Giving you leeway
- “Leeway” means extra space, more wiggle room if you will. There is no such word as “leadway”. Trust me.
And last, but not least… While this one isn’t one of the misused phrases, it’s a perennial favourite pet peeve of mine that I edit the crap out of every week.
Lie vs. Lay
- Okay boys and girls, I know your English teacher gave you this one in school, so one more time with feeling: “To lie” means to recline or rest on a surface, folks. “To lay” means to place something. You cannot lay yourself on a couch. Okay, unless someone is carrying you there and laying you out on it, I suppose. People “lie” on things, and they “lay” objects on surfaces.
Again, I can’t stress enough – be careful when you’re using phrases/idioms that everyone knows well. Misused phrases in the wrong place, as in during your submission copy, could cost you your shot. Use them well or leave those out and let your own words stand.
[Related article: Misused Phrases, Take 2 – the ones everyone knows well]