Here’s an article designed to whet your appetite—rather than wet your appetite (this is one many people get wrong! See the explanation, below). We’re about to open a language can of worms here: Below are some common phrases that many people are using incorrectly. Are you guilty of any of these faulty phrases?
A Can of Worms?
Are you waiting with baited breath for more information? Well, it’s actually bated breath—bated being the shortened form of abated, meaning “diminished.”
All Tied Up
May the lessons here strike a responsive cord in your mind. Oops, it’s strike a responsive chord. The figurative comparison here is musical. A chord is a set of tones, a cord just a piece of string.
Easy As Pie
Read carefully, and you’ll get your just deserts, not your just desserts. Deserts, in this case, are not pie or pudding—they refer to what you justly deserve.
Are You Saying It Wrong?
Many faulty phrases involve mispronunciations that mangle the sounds of the words when we speak them:
A Biting Remark
May this small instruction manual can help nip your mistakes in the butt. Ack! Employing an agricultural metaphor, the intended statement should be to nip your mistakes in the bud before they can grow and fully flower.
Bring It On Home
Do you hone in on an issue? No, sorry, that should be home in on. To hone means “to sharpen,” as in, “to hone a knife” or “to hone a skill.” To home in on means “to move closer to a target.” Think “homing pigeon”!
A Rock and a Hard Place
For all intensive purposes you really shouldn’t take for granite any phrase, right? Actually, these pervasive expressions in their correct form are for all intents and purposes and take for granted. They make more sense that way, don’t they?
It’s a doggy dog world out there, so stop mispronouncing this common expression! The competitiveness of human life makes it a dog-eat-dog world.
Like a Wrecking Ball
Such boo-boos wreck havoc on your language. That version also somewhat makes sense, but the conventional form is to wreak havoc. Havoc means “chaos, “and wreak here means “to cause the infliction of.” And it’s not “reek” either: the only creatures that can reek havoc are skunks.
When words collide, some competing versions come within a hare’s breath or hare’s breadth or hair’s breath or hair’s breadth of each other. The only correct way to write and read this one is hair’s breadth, the thickness of single human hair. The expression has nothing to do with rabbits or breathing. I hope that jibes (not jives), with your understanding of the idiom.
Call & Answer
Master these distinctions, and they will serve you at your beckon call. Not quite. They will serve you at your beck and call—beck meaning “when you gesture at them,” and call meaning, “when you command them.”
All Turned Around
The last category of fractured, faulty phrases is those that lack logic. For example, I’m hoping that, as a result of my instruction, you’ll make a 360-degree turn in your verbal skills. In reality, that’s the last thing I want to happen because a 360-degree turn puts you right back where you started. I’m hoping to inspire you to make a 180-degree turn in your speaking.
Some folks could care less about biting their mother tongue. But if they could care less, they must care to some extent. So, don’t be careless with care less. Use couldn’t care less to indicate that you don’t care even a smidge.
Why is it “Whet” and Not “Wet”?
The spelling of the phrase above is, indeed, whet because the metaphor here compares the sharpening (whetting) of a knife to the sharpening of one’s hunger).
Richard Lederer is a writer, speaker, and teacher best known for his books on word play and the English language and is a regular contributor to the Farmers' Almanac. You can visit his web site at Verbivore.