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Most Commonly Misused Expressions in English

By Edited Nov 21, 2015 0 0

Some of our most cherished cliches in English are so old or of unknown origin that the expressions really don't make much sense word for word.  Thus, it's easy to misspeak or mistype these phrases, especially if some of the words have homophone pairs. The list below includes some of the most frequently botched sayings in English.

(1) Toe the line.

It's not "tow" the line, but "toe" the line.  The expression essentially means to follow orders exactly as they are given, or to conform to a standard without deviation.  The origin of this phrase is murky, but it is generally accepted to be related to forgotten expression "toe the plank." When a ship's crew was called to the deck, they stood in formation with their toes lined up along the seams of the wooden planks.

Some rogue scholars suggest that it really should be "tow the line," with tow as in "pull" and line as in "rope." While "pull the rope" makes more logical and grammatical sense, it is nevertheless incorrect  and grammar Nazis everywhere will insist that you toe the line and write it with "toe."

(2) Wait with bated breath.


The correct form is "bated," not "baited."  The verb to bate is an obscure and now obsolete form of the verb to abate, meaning to reduce, lessen, or diminish.  Waiting with your breath bated (or abated) means essentially to hold your breath while you wait.  

But if you insist on waiting with baited breath, don't be surprised if someone offers you mints.

(3) For all intents and purposes...

Some people may butcher this into "For all intensive purposes..." but there's an easy way to remember why this is wrong: ask yourself what the hell an intensive purpose is.

(4) I couldn't care less.

When you could not care less about something, it means you care so little that it would defy all the laws of the known universe for you to care even less

If you say "I could care less," it means it is possible for you to care less about something, but you are currently sustaining a level of care above the theoretical minimum.  Kind of defeats the whole purpose of expressing how much you don't care.

(5) Sleight of hand

A magician's maneuvers are sleights, meaning  acts of skill, dexterity, and craftyness.  The incorrect phrase "slight of hand" means having small hands.  While some feats of prestidigitation may indeed require slight hands, make sure you include the "e."

(6) Pique your curiosity

To pique means to arouse, so when something "piques your curiosity" it arouses it.  To peak is to reach the apex and to peek is to glimpse; neither of these two words makes sense in this expression. 

(7) Without further ado...

To introducs something "without further ado" means to introduce something without making any more fuss, to get on with it.  "Ado" is simply an old word for fuss.  Think of the Shakespearean play "Much Ado About Nothing."

The phrase "without further adieu" literally means without further farewell.  It would only make sense to say this when you are leaving a group and want go quickly before any more people say good-bye to you.

"Without further a Dew" is a polite way a refusing a refill of Mountain Dew.

(8) Whet your appetite.

To whet is to sharpen, thus, something that "whets your appetite" makes you hungrier for more.  "Wetting your appetite" is just plain gross.

(9) Barbed wire fence

"Barbed wire" (also "barb wire") is so-called because it has barbs entwined with the wire.  Barbed wire repels animals; Bob Wire repels people who haven't developed an appreciation of Maximum Honky Tonk.

(10) Teach your grandma to suck eggs.

Kid Gavilan

This expression is often warped into and misconstrued as an insult, in the form of "Tell your grandma to suck eggs!"  The original meaning of the phrase is to tell someone how to do something he/she already knows how to do, and can probably do better than the teacher.  Apparently, back in the olden days, grandmas were highly skilled at sucking out eggs' contents. Teaching your granny how to do this was a pointless exercies since she could do it better than your own young whipper snapper self. Boo-yah Grandma.

In this case, the perversion is better than the original.



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