I know that I have a lot of readers from all over the world for whom English might be their second language, so I enjoy doing pieces like this to help you improve your skills. However, believe it or not, all of these expressions are frequently said or written incorrectly by native English speakers, too, so you’re in good company!
Welcome to another installment of things you’re saying wrong. I’ve previously covered commonly misused words, as well as oft-mangled phrases. Today will be more of the latter, so let’s just get right to it.
Bated breath, not baited breath
The phrase means to wait for something with great excitement. For example, “Billy spent the night waiting for the family trip to Disneyland with bated breath.” The meaning of “bate” here is to moderate or restrain, so Billy is trying not to be too excited. To bait one’s breath might lure all kinds of fish, but it’s just not the right word. Like many of the examples on the list, the error is probably caused by people only having heard the phrase but never having seen it written down, so they just make big assumptions.
Beck and call, not beckon call
And no, we’re not referring to the musician here. While “beckon” and “call” are somewhat synonymous, the two don’t go together in this phrase. It can be confusing because one of the meanings of the word “beck” is a beckoning gesture. However, beck is a noun and beckon is a verb, so the one noun just goes better with the other which, in this case, is call, which is not being used as a verb.
Case in point, not case and point
The idea with this phrase is that the case proves the point you’re making. They are not coequal; one supports the other. So if your point is that not wearing a motorcycle helmet is dangerous and then you cite the case of a 25-year-old man who suffered permanent brain damage after an accident because he wasn’t wearing a helmet, then that story is the case in point — the example that supports your claim.
Commander-in-Chief, not Commander and Chief
This one gets misused all the time, and I’m not sure why. It’s a military title for the President of the United States, but the president only has one such title, which is the position of Commander, further clarified by indicating that the president is also the chief commander. Here, “in-chief” is an adjective describing the commandership, it’s not an additional title. Another great example of the “seen, never heard” phenomenon.
Damp squib, not damp squid
There’d be nothing unusual about a damp squid, of course, since they spend their lives in the ocean, but this expression refers to something that winds up being a dud — “The product launch went off like a damp squib.” In other words, nothing really happened. A squib is a small explosive usually powered by gunpowder, so if it gets wet it doesn’t go “boom.” A notable use of squibs were to simulate actors being hit by bullets in older films — a squib and a fake blood pack would be connected together under the actor’s clothes with a slit in the fabric in front and a little metal plating in back. Blowing up the squib would make the fake blood squirt out. This technique pretty much went away when Hollywood realized, “Hey — we can do this shit with CGI now!”
Do a 180°, not do a 360°
This one is not just a word usage error but a complete mathematical mistake. What the expression is supposed to mean is to do an about-face. That is, change your direction or position or point of view to the exact opposite of what it was. “Nancy’s favorite color used to be red, but then she saw the new fall designs and did a total 180°, so now she loves green.” If you do a 360°, then you wind up right back where you stared because you’ve figuratively gone full circle.
Dog-eat-dog world, not doggie dog world
Yeah, a bit gross if you’re an animal-lover, but the more violent version is the correct one, and it refers to the cut-throat nature of life, at least in some circles. It’s a variation of the expression “every man for himself.” Again, it should be obvious how only ever hearing this expression led to the kinder, gentler version.
Due diligence, not do diligence
This one comes from the land of law and business, and while you definitely have to do stuff to achieve it, the correct word is “due,” because it refers to what is necessary. “Due diligence” refers to the process by which a person, entity, business proposal, or other potential contractual arrangement is investigated. For example, if someone applies for a job at a bank, due diligence would involve looking into their background for any criminal record, outstanding debts or other financial problems, and anything else that might make them high-risk for entrusting them with sensitive customer information.
For all intents and purposes, not for all intensive purposes
Another great “heard not seen,” although I can’t even figure out what an intensive purpose would be. Intent refers to the mental reasoning behind any action; purpose refers the intended outcome of those actions. Put them together, and what you’re basically saying is whatever phrase follows this one, it fulfills both the reasoning behind the action and the intended outcome, although it’s not necessarily positive. “For all intents and purposes, the new law killed the proposed mall.”
Free rein, not free reign
Oh, to confuse your monarchy and your horses! A reign is what a king or queen has, and you can remember that because both King and Reign have a G in them. A rein is how you steer a horse — and if you give your horse free rein, it can go whichever way it wants to. If you give your monarch free reign, they’ll probably wind up assassinated or deposed, so don’t to that. Unless you hate your monarch.
Hunger pangs, not hunger pains
Not to be confused with “hunger games.” While a pang is related to a pain — because it means a sudden, sharp pain — it’s specific to the expression.
Make do, not make due
Here we have the opposite of “due diligence.” The only way to actually make something due is to send a bill or invoice — but that’s not what this expression means. In fact, it’s kind of on the opposite end of the spectrum. “Make do” means to get along with what you have; that is, by making existing resources do what they need to. “They couldn’t afford a new car yet, so that had to make do with the ancient Fiat they inherited from the grandmother.”
Moot point, not mute point
A moot point is far from mute because the latter means silent, while moot point is one that should be quite open for debate or discussion — although it depends on which side of the pond you’re on. If you’re in the U.S., it’s also just as likely to mean something that’s not worth discussion. Still, this one is definitely not an example of heard and not seen, because “moot,” with a long double-O, sounds nothing like “mute,” which has a long liquid-U.
Nipped it in the bud, not nipped it in the butt
As attractive as the idea of biting someone’s ass can be, this one actually comes from the field of horticulture (“You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think!”), and the proper word is “bud,” as in a flower bud. And if you nip that off just as it’s budding and long before it blooms, ta-da! You’ll never grow a flower off of that stem. So this is very related to the concept of cutting something off at the roots.
On tenterhooks, not on tender hooks
Another heard, not seen. This refers to being in a state of suspense, but with tenterhooks, that was literal. They were involved in the process of drying cloth, which was stretched out in a frame called a tenter. And how was it held taut in that frame? With tenterhooks, duh. Tender hooks really feels like an oxymoron and would make Clive Barker sad.
Peace of mind, not piece of mind
Okay, for all of us with fierce mamas, we probably have examples of when they went down to our schools and gave dipshit administrators a piece of their minds, but that’s a different expression. Although, of course, it’s probably also the source of confusion. “Peace of mind” pretty much means just that — calming the fuck out of your brain bucket.
Shoo-in, not shoe-in
I don’t know where you’re sticking your shoes, but this phrase refers to someone who will just cruise into a job, elected office, chosen university, whatever, with no struggle. But, in this case, the “shoo” refers to sort of a reverse chase. That is, just like it’s easy to shoo a mouse out of your kitchen with a broom, these privileged people get easily chased into those positions of, well, privilege.
Statute of limitations, not statue of limitations
This one is kind of hilarious, because the idea of a statue setting limits just makes me think of the Weeping Angels from Doctor Who. They are definitely the ultimate Statues of Limitations! Otherwise, though, the word you’re thinking of is “statute,” which refers to a law — and a statute of limitations determines how long after the fact someone can still be charged with a crime. Unfortunately, this confusion can lead to a really unfortunate mix-up between statutory rape, which is a terrible crime against a minor, and statuary rape, which is just a really unfortunate display of bad behavior in a sculpture garden. Although the latter is far more preferable than the former.
Take a different tack, not take a different track (or tact)
Again, words mean things, and this expression comes from the world of sailing. A tack was a way you turned your sails to take full advantage of the wind. In a related note, “the whole nine yards” actually means that you were hanging all of your sails on a three-masted ship, because each of those masts had three yardarms. In other news, because of the way that those yardarms stuck out of the masts, “yard” became the preferred Elizabethan slang for dick. You’re welcome!
Whet your appetite, not wet your appetite
This is what happens when you no longer need to sharpen your own knives or razors. Whet means just that — to hone or sharpen or make more acute. To “wet your appetite” doesn’t really make any sense if you think about it.
Worse comes to worst, not worse comes to worse
Another nice no brainer. I mean, if you start with worse and end with worse, where have you really gone? Nowhere. The only way down from worse (or bad) is worst. Period.
You’ve got another think coming, not you’ve got another thing coming
Ironically, this one seems really ungrammatical in its original form, but “another think” is, in fact, how it was originally and has always been attested. And think about it honestly for a second. What, exactly, is the other “thing” coming their way? This really just sounds like the threat of a dick in the face. Calm your jets!
Bonus Round: One that’s right now, or now right
And this brings me to “spitting image,” which way back when started out as “spit and image.” Or maybe not. It’s just a really messy expression all around. But, in this case, I think we’ve actually managed to land on something simple and acceptable. Maybe.