Do you know what you’re saying?


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.

This is a fowl, not a foul.

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!


41 thoughts on “Do you know what you’re saying?

  1. I love this! And just as bad as seeing this stuff in print is constantly hearing talking heads on TV using bad grammar. Talking is what they’re paid to do…they should at least get the grammar correct!


  2. The one that drives me nuts is “phase” instead of “faze.” You were fazed by the situation–if you’d been phased by it you’d be on a different plane of existence or something!

    My husband was dismayed to see a business presentation that said ‘referencability’ instead of ‘referenceability’ –but if you google the term it’s about 50/50 whether it’s spelled correctly or not.


    1. I confess that that sort of spelling mistake is starting to bother me less and less. But the confusion of completely different words is maddening!


    2. This is the one I was going to bring up too. Drives me nuts. I’ve never seen most of the others, but I think I’ve seen phase/faze wrong more than I’ve seen it right!


  3. Phewf. I pass on all these. πŸ™‚ But, is phewf spelled correctly I wonder?

    I have seen some mistakes like this over the months, but I can’t remember now what they were. If I think of any, I’ll come back and let you know.


  4. These made me laugh: a month overdo = a stint following the Trump campaign?

    But I’m more bothered by inaccuracies. I yelled at the radio this morning when the newsman said, “We’re in Daylight Savings Time now, so we have an extra hour of daylight.”


  5. Thanks for this! I think I must confuse adieu with ado, and overdue with overdo, as both versions look “correct” to me as I read the above! Obviously I cannot do it — ha ha. πŸ™‚

    I used to type “insight” when I meant “incite” until someone pointed it out, and just a few days ago I wrote “eminence” when I meant “imminence.” And I consider myself on top of things! πŸ™‚


    1. Our English spelling is terribly confusing to begin with, and doesn’t help those with a poor memory for such distinctions. The main thing is to care about the differences and keep trying!


  6. As an editor, I see these misused phrases ALL the time, and sometimes they make me chuckle. People misuse some of these so often that it’s natural for people to think they’re actually correct. At least the examples you give are actual homonyms – sometimes I see phrases where a completely wrong word is used – one that doesn’t even sound exactly the same, but it sounds very close so people get it confused.

    I will admit, though, that there are a few phrases that even I have even needed to look up because I’m not sure if they’re correct or not. One example that comes to mind is deep-seated – I originally wasn’t sure if it was that or deep-seeded. Deep-seeded almost seems to make more logical sense (which is why so many people use it), but deep-seated is correct (in the sense that something is seated firmly in place).

    One other word (though not a phrase) that I have seen misused on blogs A LOT for some reason is the word weary when someone means leery. I’m not quite sure why, but I’ve suddenly seem so many people mixing these two up. I actually even pointed it out in the comments one time when I read a blog post where they misused the word a few times – but then I stressed that the person might be aggravated that I’m correcting their grammar!


    1. I’ve always assumed the ‘weary’ misuse is meant to be ‘wary’. ie, ‘I was weary of reading this book because it had mixed reviews’ should be ‘I was wary of reading this book because it had mixed reviews.

      Great post, Lory! I’m glad I’m not the only one bothered by this kind of thing.


  7. Some mistakes like judgment/judgement really are a matter of preference – reading Eats, Shoots and Leaves really helped me to see that there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to punctuation, just patterns that society has come to see as appropriate. Still, I do get excited when I see a correctly-placed semi-colon.

    As far mistaken phrases, I completely agree with all of the above but I would like to nominate a special place in Hell for the phrase ‘I could care less’. It seems to have crept in instead of ‘I couldn’t care less’. If you could care less, then by all means do – don’t say that you could. In the UK, there is also a big mix-up that started in the mid 90s between ‘borrow’ and ‘lend’, as in, “Can I lend a pen off you?”, meaning, “Can I borrow your pen?” Similarly, “I borrowed him a quid”, meaning “I lent him a quid.” That one has been annoying me for nearly 20 years.

    It’s interesting though because as you say, it is a sign that sometimes people really do not know the meaning of the words they speak.


    1. Ergh, that “lend” and “borrow” thing must be so annoying. My husband mixes them up sometimes but I think that’s because they are the same word in German.


    2. Ha – I was going to nominate ‘I could care less’ too. It drives me particularly nuts because there is nothing in that phrase that is difficult or foreign, and it seems really widespread. Think, people!


  8. Great post, Lory! This is one of my pet peeves as well. I’ve probably seen ‘without further adieu’ pop up more times than I can count. I’m disturbed to learn about ‘a month overdo’, though; I haven’t seen that one before, and it strikes me as the most obviously incorrect of the lot.


    1. I know…one wonders whether those people never had an assignment “due.” Maybe they think it means they have to “do” it? Now I’m starting to confuse myself…


  9. Hubby goes nuts when someone says or writes “chomping at the bit” when it’s supposed to be “champing at the bit”. I know it’s so common these days as to almost be the accepted usage but that doesn’t make it right! Same with “card shark” instead of “card sharp”.
    I am also tired of people typing “lightening” when they mean lightning. And it seems like almost everyone is getting french phrases wrong these days, ie. “say la vie” or “kudatah” (yeah, figure that one out). Oh, those are awful!


    1. Oh, the mangling of French phrases is horrible. (Kudatah = coup d’etat?) Of course, much of the English language is based on a sort of mangled French, but maybe it’s time to stop that now.


  10. I’ve never really made those kinds of mistakes haha. I guess when I look at it I kind of didn’t realize people misspelled those things. This is an interesting perspective though, it’s funny that you’ve picked up on that. But maybe it just doesn’t bother me as much hahaha.


    1. Some people don’t really “see” spelling differences, and I know it’s terribly difficult for them to keep English spelling straight. (It’s crazy inconsistent.) But sometimes I can’t help wishing for a little more attention to detail.


  11. Wouldn’t of is one which has me grinding my teeth, from wouldn’t have which when spoken gets contracted to wouldn’t ‘ve by most.

    P.S. – the ‘ wrong’ spelling of my name, isn’t! It’s deliberate, a nod to a Restoration play, and a character with this name and spelling. I’m not sure if this was the correct spelling at the time or if Vanbrugh himself was making a deliberate or accidental error


    1. I’m prone to inserting some double ll’s where they don’t belong myself, so I sympathize with Vanbrugh. πŸ™‚ To my mind the worst errors are where one word is mistaken for an entirely different one, creating nonsense — of and have in your example. What could “wouldn’t of” possibly mean?


  12. Oh my goodness: “I could care less.” Really? You *could* care less? Because that means you DO care. That one drives me insane! And I’ve even seen it in books, not just blogs and random places. It also bothers me when people say “would of” instead of “would have.” But anyway, these types of things bother me too, so it’s not just you! And if I’m using any wrong words myself… then I guess no one had pointed them out to me and I just haven’t noticed yet lol.


  13. I see this on a daily basis: bloggers who use “to” instead of “too”.

    Not picking on anyone specifically because I enjoy reading your thoughts, but I do get bugged for some odd reason by this spelling error. Maybe because it is so prevalent in blogs. Some people say “I want to read that book to”. Just a gentle reminder here. I’m not going to be, and don’t claim to be perfect enough to be, the Spelling Police.


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