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I (wish I) could care less that you used an idiom incorrectly

When you write professionally, you should never get off Scotch free if you incorrectly use an idiom or phrase. By in large, most of my colleagues and I tow the line in terms of our writing, but on occasion we do make a grammatical foe paw.

I admit that I have a deep-seeded interest in the proper use of grammar, and often cringe when someone claims they could care less about the proper way to say things. However, if you’d prefer your grammar to pass mustard, please consider my tongue and cheek advice for sounding smarter by avoiding the incorrect usage of the following 10 idioms and phrases.

  1. Moot point – not mute point. A point that is moot is considered hypothetical or of no importance – or, a point that one should probably remain mute about.
  2. For all intents and purposes – not for all intensive. For all intents and purposes means for virtually or all practical purposes. This phrase is actually an eggcorn (another fun grammar topic for another blog, perhaps.)
  3. Piqued my interest – not peaked my interest. To “pique” means to arouse or excite – though arguably a something could peak your interest if your interest was at its pinnacle.
  4. Shoo-in – not shoe-in. A shoo-in is a sure winner. Shoo means to urge something in a certain direction (perhaps by kicking the something with your shoe?)
  5. Hunger pangs – not hunger pains. We’ve probably all felt painfully hungry at times due to hunger pangs – which are sharp pains in our stomach.
  6. Wreak havoc – not wreck.  To wreak havoc is to cause great damage, which is what you might do if you were to get into a car wreck.
  7. Biding my time – not biting my time. To bide one’s time means to wait patiently for the right moment. Definitely makes more sense than chewing on your watch.
  8. Case in point – not case and A case in point is an example that supports one’s argument. I avoid saying idioms incorrectly so I can sound smarter; a case in point is that I never say, “case and point.”
  9. Nip in the bud – not in the butt. In the gardening world, if you nip a flower in the bud, it won’t blossom. By nipping a problem in the bud, you are preventing it from flowering. On the other hand, you may a create problem if you nip someone’s butt.
  10. One and the same – not one in the same. This phrase should be used to emphasize that two subjects are actually the same or alike. Unless you are describing nesting dolls, the correct phrase is one and the same.

If this blog posted has wet your appetite for more grammar tips, here are the correct versions of a few bonus phrases, courtesy of Merriam-Webster:

Champing at the Bit over the Correct Use of Idioms: Its Just Good PR

All languages employ idioms, or phrases that have a figurative meaning that goes beyond the literal use of the words—and English is no different. In fact, the English language includes an estimated 25,000 idiomatic expressions such as “breath of fresh air” and “clean bill of health.”

We commonly use idioms in business—and in marketing and public relations—to emphasize a point or make it more memorable. Unfortunately, many idioms are often misused. So much so, that the incorrect usage of idioms in some cases has become more common than the correct use. As we know, though, impressions are everything when it comes to PR, so it’s important to get it right.

Here’s a refresher on commonly used—and misused—idioms that tend to come up frequently in PR:

  • Flesh out that idea or proposal, don’t flush it out. When you flesh something out, you’re giving it more substance and building out the details. Flushing out refers to clearing something out—like a sewer line—or getting it out of hiding.
  • Home in on your key messages, don’t hone in on them. To home in on something is to zero in on it, as a missile homes in on a target. Hone (which shouldn’t be used with in, in this way) means to sharpen. So you home in on your key messages, and then you hone them until they are razor sharp.
  • You’re champing at the bit to get started on a project, not chomping. If you’re eager to get a new initiative going, you’re champing at the bit—as a horse does when anxious to start a race. Although horses also chomp, or chew noisily, they do so when eating—not when anticipating something. (Note: This is one of those idiomatic expressions that is so commonly misused, some dictionaries include both versions of the expression. But the Associated Press Stylebook, the go-to style guide for major media outlets, has spoken—and AP still prefers the original usage of “champing.”)
  • It’s for all intents and purposes, not for all intensive purposes. For all intents and purposes means “in effect,” or “practically speaking”: “For all intents and purposes, we have completed our crisis communication plan.” All intensive purposes is a misuse of the original phrase, which comes from British legal terminology originating in the 1500s.

As with “for all intents and purposes,” a number of idioms have “eggcorns,” which means a similar-sounding word or words are substituted for the original due to mishearing or misinterpreting the correct term. The word eggcorn is thought to be a playful descriptor based on a theoretical mishearing of the word “acorn.”

Since eggcorns most often occur with homophones, or words that sound the same to the ear, these idiomatic faux pas occur most frequently when writing a phrase after hearing it spoken.

Here are a few common eggcorns to keep in mind:

  • You toe the line, you don’t tow it. Toeing the line means you conform; you do what you’re expected to do and follow the rules. This phrase comes from racers placing their toes at a start line before a race. You can use a line or cable to help tow something such as a boat, but the line does the towing—not vice versa.
  • You give people free rein, not free reign. When you give others free rein—as you might with a horse—you give them the freedom to do what they want. Reign refers to the act of a monarch ruling a nation or territory.
  • When someone is strongly favored in a competition, he or she is a shoo-in—not a shoe-in. This is another idiom related to horses… are you sensing a pattern? If you think about “shooing” a fly, it’s moving in the direction you want it to. The same is the case with the horse/candidate/whomever you want to win some kind of race—supporters cheer the candidate on, shooing him or her towards victory.
  • A creative idea piques your interest, it doesn’t peak it. If your interest is piqued, you are excited or curious about something. Peak refers to a pointed end or a hilltop or mountaintop.
  • It’s per se, not per say. Per se is Latin for “by itself”: “The correct use of idioms doesn’t make you a genius, per se, but it’s a point in your favor.” It’s surprising how often the incorrect “per say” appears in writing, and from some super-smart people. Likely a case of the error being repeated so often, it starts to look correct.
  • You wait with bated breath, not baited breath. The adjective bated means “with great suspense,” and this phrase refers to waiting for something anxiously or excitedly. When something is baited, on the other hand, a predator is attempting to lure its prey.

So now that we’ve homed in on the most common incorrect usage of idioms, I know you’re champing at the bit to toe the line when it comes to proper usage. (Yes, I had to do it.)