Why you should choose your English words carefully

English is a language fraught with complications. With its inconsistent grammar and raft of homonyms (words which sound similar), English affords endless opportunities to make mistakes, even if you are a native speaker. We have highlighted many of the most common grammatical errors in recent articles. But there are more!

Here are some of the words and phrases which frequently lead to embarrassing blunders:

  • Shoe-in

If something is a shoe-in, it is a guaranteed success. Except that it isn’t, because the correct expression for a sure thing is actually a shoo-in! The expression is derived from shooing livestock into pens. A shoe-in would be more a case of kicking something or someone into a pen and that would be cruel! It’s amazing how many people get this one wrong!

  • I could care less

This phrase is an Americanism which doesn’t make any sense at all. It is used to express the idea that the speaker doesn’t care about something, but the words suggest the exact opposite. If you could care less about something, you must care about it in the first place! The English say I couldn’t care less which is more logical. There has been a great deal of debate regarding the two phrases with some historians suggesting that the American version was the original and was intended to express irony. 

  • I emigrated to

You will hear people explaining that they emigrated to the country in which they live to enjoy the sunshine or to find a better job. But they couldn’t have done anything of the kind because it isn’t possible to emigrate to anywhere. It is possible, however, to emigrate from a country.  In English, you immigrate to or emigrate from somewhere. The two words are not interchangeable.

  • Slight of hand

Who doesn’t love being bamboozled by a magic trick? Magician’s use slight of hand to trick our eyes into believing that certain things have disappeared or switched places. Or do they? What magicians are really using is sleight of hand! A slight is an insult whereas sleight means cunning or deception and the two words sound identical. These homonyms are the cause of much confusion, just like magic tricks!

  • Piece of mind

You might want to give someone a piece of your mind when you are angry with them. The phrase refers to those occasions when you need to express an opinion. But if what you are looking for is reassurance, you are seeking peace of mind!

  • Prostrate cancer

Prostrate means lying flat. As far as we are aware, lying flat on the floor does not cause you to contract cancer. Prostrate cancer is what is known as a malapropism – the mistaken and amusing use of a word in place of a similar-sounding one. The term malapropism honours Mrs Malaprop, a charcter in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1775 comedy-of-manners, The Rivals. She was rather prone to choosing the wrong words. Just remember that you can’t suffer from prostrate cancer but you could find that you have prostate cancer.

  • Wet your appetite

It’s always good to arouse interest in an event, meal or movie. That’s what adverts and trails are for. But their aim should be to whet your appetite not to wet it. After all, why would you drown someone’s appetite? To whet is to sharpen or to make more acute. 

  • Peak your interest

There are many things which may pique your interest rather than peak your interest. The phrase means to arouse your interest or attract your attention. It has nothing to do with mountain peaks.

  • Through the ringer

To put someone through the ringer would be to pass them through a bell! That would be rather difficult and it’s hard to imagine what could be gained from doing that. However, to put someone through the wringer would be to give them a hard time. The phrase references devices which were used to squeeze the water out of wet clothing and textiles.

  • Tow the line

This phrase seems logical but is incorrect. The correct expression is toe the line and it means to follow the rules. The phrase is a reference to runners who place their toes close to the start line but not over it, before a race.

  • Baited breath

You have probably experienced a moment of tension when you have held your breath in anticipation. But the next time that happens, you won’t be waiting with baited breath, you will be waiting with bated breath. Bait is something you use to lure prey. Bated is derived from the verb abate which means to stop or reduce.

  • A book entitled

A book is never entitled because entitled means to have a right to something. When you refer to the name of a book, the correct word is titled.

  • Poisonous

People often refer to poisonous snakes, meaning that the snakes could poison someone if they were to bite them. But poisonous should only be used to refer to something that you can eat or drink. Snakes are venomous not poisonous.

  • Free reign

You might consider giving someone free reign to do something, meaning to give them the freedom to do what they wish. Except that what you should be offering them is free rein. The expression refers to the reins used to control horses. To Reign means to rule over something.

A word to the wise

When there are words which sound similar or identical, it is incredibly easy to make the wrong choices. Sometimes errors occur because the writers simply don’t know the correct words to use. But such mistakes are often the result of typos and inadequate proof reading. It pays to check and then double check what you have written!

malapropism