How embarrassing! 13 everyday phrases you could be getting wrong

Looking like an idiot is never fun.

But how many times have you found yourself puzzled over the correct way to say or write something?

Using the wrong word for a simple idea is probably more embarrassing than making a minor grammatical error.

So let’s take a look at 13 of the most common incorrectly used expressions and learn how to get them right – once and for all.

1. Nip it in the bud

Some people say: ‘nip it in the butt’

Oh how I wish we could say ‘nip it in the butt’ and not look foolish. The mental image of biting someone’s posterior to stop undesirable behaviour is just so alluring, isn’t it?

Nipping something while it’s a bud means that it can’t grow… into a much larger problem.

Now that’s a tad more polite don’t you think? Just not quite as much fun.

2. Vice versa

Some people say: ‘vica versa’

Vice versa is a Latin phrase that means ‘the other way around’. The phrase ‘vica versa’ doesn’t exist. So go ahead and nip that one in the bud, okay?

3. Spitting image

Some people say: ‘splitting image’

‘My husband is the spitting image of Ryan Gosling.’

Mmmmm… according to this sentence, my husband looks exactly like Ryan.

Wakey wakey!

It’s incorrect to say that Person A is the ‘splitting image’ of Person B. Some people might argue that ‘splitting’ is the correct choice, assuming that the expression is derived from two matching parts of a split plank of wood.

A plausible idea. But wrong.

4. Scapegoat

Some people say: ‘escape goat’

A ‘scapegoat’ is someone who gets blamed (perhaps unfairly) for the actions of others. Julia Gillard was a ‘scapegoat’ – often blamed for the demise of the Labor Party.

An ‘escape goat’ is nothing more than a wild mammal that’s jumped the fence.

5. For all intents and purposes

Some people say: ‘for all intensive purposes’

This phrase means ‘in every practical sense’ or ‘for all practical purposes’.

‘For all intents and purposes, the game was over in the third quarter when Carlton kicked 10 goals.’

Some people argue that ‘for all intensive purposes’ is now a valid phrase in its own right.  Apparently, it’s used to indicate a sense of urgency or an intense situation.

Nonsense. The only urgent situation is my lack of sanity when I hear or read that ridiculous phrase.

But now that you know how to use this expression correctly, don’t go crazy with it. ‘For all intents and purposes’ is actually a redundant phrase. It’s fluff.

If you’re looking for a shorter equivalent phrase, opt for ‘in effect’ or ‘effectively’.

6. Home in

Some ‘people’ (cough cough, sports commentators, cough cough) say: ‘hone in’

The verb ‘home’ means ‘to move toward a goal’ or ‘aim towards something’. Think of a homing pigeon who knows where it wants to go.

”Scientists are homing in on the elusive sports gene.’

In contrast, ‘hone’ means to sharpen something. Like a knife. For example, you might ‘hone’ your skills at creative writing. Or you might ‘hone’ your skills as a Pictionary player. 

Alternative words you could use include ‘strengthen’ or ‘improve’.

So to say that ‘scientists are honing in on the elusive sports gene’ would be incorrect. If you use ‘hone in’, you will not be misunderstood. But some people will consider it a mistake and conclude that you don’t know correct English. (Sadly, others will come to the same conclusion if you use ‘home in’.)

To steer clear of the problem, just use ‘focus on’, ‘concentrate on’, or ‘zero in on’.

7. It’s a moot point

Some people say: ‘it’s a mute point’

A ‘moot point’ is one that doesn’t matter anymore due to a change of circumstances. An irrelevant argument.

To pronounce ‘moot’, simply add a ‘t’ to the end of what a cow would say.

So what’s this about a ‘mute point’ (pronounced ‘mee-yoot’)? From what I can gather, people assume it means we should press the mute button and stop discussing the issue.

8. Toe the line

Some people write: ‘tow the line’

When you hear this phrase, do you picture someone pulling a rope, cord, or some other ‘line’? If so, it’s time to erase that picture from your creative mind.

A person who ‘toes the line’ is someone who does not allow his or her foot to stray over a line or defined boundary.

Makes more sense now, doesn’t it?

9. Beck and call

Some people say: ‘beckon call’

‘Beck and call’ means being made available, or ready to obey. So if you are at your toddler’s beck and call, you respond immediately – whether she beckons or calls.

It’s an old phrase, originating in the late 1800s, during a time when ‘beck’ was used to mean ‘beckon’. And that’s why the mistaken phrase ‘beckon call’ is reasonable. Because after all, someone who is at your beck and call is ready to be beckoned.

10. Whet your appetite

Some people write: ‘wet your appetite’

‘Whet’ means to sharpen or to stimulate. Whereas ‘wet’ is all about water.

As much as I like the idea of stimulating my appetite with a glass of Moet before a meal, the correct choice is ‘whet’, not ‘wet’.

But because ‘wet’ is the far more common spelling of the word, it’s understandable if you thought the smell of my chicken lasagne cooking in the oven has been ‘wetting your appetite’ all these years.

11. Hunger pangs

Some people say: ‘hunger pains’

Although your empty stomach may feel uncomfortable at times, there’s no such thing as a ‘hunger pain’.

‘Hunger pangs’ on the other hand, are those gnawing muscle spasms that suggest it’s time for my chicken lasagna.

12. Champing at the bit

Some people say: ‘chomping at the bit’

Know much about horses? If not, you’re forgiven for getting this one wrong.

The phrase ‘champing at the bit’ originates from the tendency of horses to chew on their metal mouthpiece – known as a ‘bit’ – when they’re eager to get going.

Although ‘champ’ and ‘chomp’ both mean to bite or chew on noisily, there’s an important distinction between the two words. ‘Champ’ relates to horses biting at bits – while ‘chomp’ relates to food. Think steaks, carrot sticks or chocolate bars. Not metal bits.

13. Wolf it down

Some people say: ‘woof it down’

When you eat quickly, you can be said to ‘wolf down your food’. Just imagine a wolf swallowing a huge chunk of meat when it’s ravenous.

Now don’t get me wrong. My dog Summer is quite partial to a liver treat or two. And she does have a number of tricks up her paw. But I’m yet to witness her ‘woof’ while chewing on her doggy delights.

Any gripes of your own to share? Or perhaps you have a grammar conundrum that needs sorting out. Get in touch so we can help you out.