Much to the chagrin of English experts and grammar gurus across the country, there are some common colloquialisms that many people still can’t quite get right, thereby turning our idiomatic expressions into idiotic exclamations. Even though we’re finally homing in on some of our quirkier linguistic misfires, some people literally couldn’t care less about using these axioms properly, regardless of the consequences to our beloved language.
1. Hunger Pangs
Although hunger may indeed cause discomfort, there’s no such thing as a “hunger pain.” Hunger pangs, on the other hand, are the gnawing, severe muscle contractions that signal it’s time for dinner.
2. Whet Your Appetite
While I wholeheartedly endorse the idea of satisfying those hunger pangs with a tasty beverage, “wetting your appetite” is incorrect. To whet one’s appetite means to sharpen it, like one would use a whetstone to sharpen or hone a knife.
3. Supposed to/Used To
You’re not supposed to write “suppose to” or “use to”; it’s nonstandard English. Get used to writing and saying these phrases the correct way, with a “d” on the end of each.
4. A Moot Point
A moot point may halt conversation, but it’s not as if it has nothing to say. Be careful not to confuse “moot,” meaning debatable or doubtful, with “mute,” meaning incapable of speech. A point is moot, a person is mute.
5. Should’ve, Would’ve, Could’ve
There are few things as foul to the grammatically correct eye as reading “I should of done that.” The proper usage is “should have” or its contracted form, “should’ve.” “Should’ve” and “should of” may seem like homophones, but they are most definitely not synonyms.
6. Nip It in the Bud
In gardening terms, pruning a plant at the bud keeps it from flowering. It may be more exciting to think about giving something (or someone) a “nip in the butt,” but if you’re trying to say that you’ve taken care of a problem preemptively, leave everyone’s behind behind.
7. Pore Over
If you’re “pouring over” documents in the library, be prepared for a nasty encounter with the librarian, because what you should be doing is “poring over” them, or examining them closely. Incidentally, you can pore over your pores as well, even though these words actually come from two different roots.
8. Toe the Line
This idiom means to conform to a rule or standard. Sometimes it is misused as “tow the line,” which would obscure its military origins, which may have had something to do with literally arranging one’s feet in position on a line for inspection.
9. Pique My Curiosity
Incorrect forms of this expression abound, sometimes appearing as “peak my curiosity” or “peek my curiosity.” To pique means to prick or stimulate, which is not to be confused with the homophones “peak,” meaning apex, or “peek,” meaning glimpse.
10. All of a Sudden
“All of the sudden” is just plain wrong. Use “a” instead.
11. Case in Point
This expression is used when a specific instance serves as evidence, and it’s not “case and point,” as some people claim. “People really screw up the English language. Case in point—have you ever noticed how many people use the word ‘irregardless’?”
12. Toward, Anyway
These words do not have an “s” on the end. “Towards” and “anyways” may have a folksy, rustic quality in spoken English, but they are not used in formal writing.
13. With Bated Breath
Only if my fiancé ate a whole tub of Nutella would he have irresistible “baited breath.” “Bated breath,” as the expression actually goes, contains a shortened form of the word “abated,” meaning held off or postponed. I’ll wait with bated breath for my fiancé to get started on that Nutella.
14. Sleight of Hand
Although magicians might have “slight” hands with nimble and slender fingers, their art is called “sleight of hand,” which means deceit or dexterity. Theoretically, however, an illusionist in need of more practice could have developed only a slight sleight of hand.
15. Beck and Call
Many people conflate idiomatic expressions when they don’t understand where they come from, and the result is many expressions like this one, which ends up being transcribed as “beckon call.” “Beck” is an old form of the word “beckon,” and it simply means that you are accessible to somebody via either gesture or vocalization.
Mangled forms of English idioms may be common, but that doesn’t make them right. And unfortunately, correcting other people’s grammar is not always a surefire method of gaining popularity. If you don’t feel comfortable explaining the difference between “bring,” “brung,” and “brought,” it’s okay to let it go, but if you encounter someone who insists on using the word “supposably,” please … gently remind him that there is no such word. You’ll be doing us all a big favor.
Updated January 19, 2011