Last year, I did a discussion post on the topic Does spelling matter? It was an attempt to bring some clarity to the confusion that’s proliferating now that proofreading seems to be a dying art. I focused on a few of the errors involving homonyms — words that sound alike but are spelled differently — that bug me the most. I don’t know if this had much effect, but it helped me to feel I had done my bit in the cause of literacy.
Now, I’m going to indulge myself further, because what I’m seeing everywhere, not just in informal blogs, but in more “professional” websites and even in printed publications, is rampant distortion of common phrases and idioms that people appear to be repeating without regard for what they actually mean. This creates completely nonsensical combinations of words, and turns language into gibberish.
Here are a few examples, and please don’t be embarrassed if you’ve used any incorrectly; you were probably just repeating what you saw somewhere else. If this happens enough the spelling of some phrases may eventually change, but however you spell them, at least be sure that you know what you mean.
Not for the feint of heart – should be Not for the faint of heart
I think what you mean to say is “Not for someone who is lacking in courage,” because “faint” means weak or feeble, and the heart is the traditional source of bravery. I’m not sure what “feint of heart” could signify; a “feint” is a tricky, deceptive move as in fencing or basketball, and would be difficult for a heart to accomplish.
Without further adieu – should be Without further ado
Do you really want to say “without further goodbye”? If so, by all means use the first version, because “adieu” means “goodbye” in French. But if you mean “without further fuss and bother,” the word you want is “ado.”
Neither fish nor foul – should be Neither fish nor fowl
The latter is the phrase to use when you mean “neither one thing nor the other,” neither creatures that swim in the water nor birds that fly in the air. “Foul” (an adjective describing something disgusting or putrid, or a noun meaning a wrong move in sports) doesn’t make any sense as a contrast to “fish.”
My soul purpose in life – should be My sole purpose in life
All right, this could be meant poetically — “the purpose that is closest to the inner spiritual essence of my being.” But the usual meaning is “My only purpose in life”; “sole” just means “only” in this context.
A month overdo – should be A month overdue
This error turns a phrase almost into its opposite. “Overdue” means you’re turning in or completing something too late, after it was due. Save “overdo” for when you’re doing too much, rather than too little. “Hey, don’t overdo it with the spelling corrections, Lory!”
Do you have any more phrases to elucidate for us? Any embarrassing mistakes to confess? Please share!