Begging the question, for all intensive purposes: misused colloquialisms in modern English
April 2, 2008 6:41 PM   Subscribe

Commonly misused phrases or expressions?

It drives me nuts in a totally pedantic way when people misuse the phrase "take it with a grain of salt" to make the amount of salt larger (i.e. a "giant" grain) when the whole point of the expression is to emphasize how small the amount of salt should be--are there any other examples of phrases or expressions that are frequently used in the exact opposite way intended, either by mangling the phrase itself or just using it incorrectly (e.g. 'hoi polloi' to mean 'the wealthy elite' when it actually means 'the common masses')? I've seen things like lists of common errors in English, but I'm looking for this particular kind of error.

I'd rather not make this a debate on how language and meaning evolve over time and more about specific examples. Also, I have no idea how to use the phrase "to beg the question" but props to anyone who can finally explain that one to me, because I just know that'll be the first example given.
posted by cosmic osmo to Writing & Language (164 answers total) 69 users marked this as a favorite
 
I no longer admire someone who recently used the phrase, "escape goat."
posted by SassHat at 6:45 PM on April 2, 2008 [7 favorites]


Fucking "irregardless". For the most part, use of this pseudo word is by people who seem to think an awfully lot of themselves. This one one that makes my brain explode.
posted by TomMelee at 6:49 PM on April 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


"I could care less", used to mean "I don't care at all". (instead of the proper "I couldn't care less")

That one drives me nuts.

And yes, I do judge people who use bad grammar.
posted by chrisamiller at 6:49 PM on April 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


'unmet needs'
posted by pieoverdone at 6:50 PM on April 2, 2008


"For all intensive purposes." *shiver*

Although I guess this is really just a mistake in saying the phrase itself, not in how it is used.
posted by chihiro at 6:52 PM on April 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


William Safire did an interesting "On Language" column once on "tow the line" and "toe the line." That phrase has become completely garbled by now so that it can mean to follow established practice or to push the boundaries of established practice.

One of my pet peeves is when people say "The thing is, is that..." They seem to think that "The thing is" constitutes a noun, which requires an extra verb, when it seems to me that it would make more sense to say "The thing is that..."
posted by bassjump at 6:52 PM on April 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


Hmm, so "begging the question" wasn't the first example. Still... begging the question is often used to indicate that a statement invites an obvious question, whereas correct usage would involve identifying that the logical fallacy of taking for granted as true what you are arguing for, creating a circular argument - e.g. lying is wrong because we ought always to tell the truth.

Not debating, but World Wide Words has a nice article on the phrase.
posted by WalterMitty at 6:54 PM on April 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


I've also heard people use the phrase "let's table this" (in meetings, for example) to mean the opposite of its original meaning, i.e. to indicate "Let's put this on the table and talk about it!" instead of "Let's put this away for now."
posted by bassjump at 6:55 PM on April 2, 2008


"for all intensive purposes" is like fingernails on a chalkboard for me.

Also, "mute point."
posted by Tomorrowful at 6:55 PM on April 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


What drives me nuts is when people blithely repeat phrases they've heard, not knowing for one second what they're saying, like:

"Taken for Granite."
"A Mute point."
"That doesn't Jive"

I read once where a student complained in writing to a professor that her bad grade had hurt her "self of steam."

AAAUUGGHH!
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:55 PM on April 2, 2008 [4 favorites]


(As a side note, I just looked up the etymology of the phrase "to take with a grain of salt" and realized that I guess modifying the salt doesn't actually butcher the idiom in quite the way I thought it did, but it still annoys me, and I am still looking for examples of errors.)
posted by cosmic osmo at 6:56 PM on April 2, 2008


x2 on TomMelee and chrisamiller.

Other peeves: conversational geometry mistakes ("I did a 360 on the issue"; I get blank stares when I ask why they felt it necessary to come back to where they started, instead of just staying there); on preview, I see many of my others have been discussed.
posted by never used baby shoes at 6:58 PM on April 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Nonplussed
posted by jrossi4r at 6:59 PM on April 2, 2008 [3 favorites]


Oh yes, the same person who used "escape goat" also said "the cat is in the bag now!" regarding something they considered a done deal.
posted by SassHat at 7:00 PM on April 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


I absolutely cannot stand all but, i.e.

I've all but finished the book.
So, Einstein, you're saying you've done everything except finish the book?
posted by mr. creosote at 7:04 PM on April 2, 2008


The Eggcorn Database has a whole bunch of mangled idioms, although not necessarily changed to mean the opposite of the original.
posted by nomis at 7:06 PM on April 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


So many pet peeves already listed, I've actually forgotten what I was going to put.

2nd for 'intensive purposes', 'mute point', and especially 'could care less'.

But more seriously, I now really want an escape goat.
posted by pompomtom at 7:08 PM on April 2, 2008


Also, scary common but when people repeat the last word of an acronym:
"PIN number"
"ATM machine"
posted by SassHat at 7:08 PM on April 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


Prosaic?


Part of the problem with "begs the question" is that it's like "passive-aggressive" and general relativity - everyone has a firm but subtly slightly different understanding of what it is. As for my own idea of what it is, it might help to think of begging the question as "recursive thinking".
Eg, if the question is "How do I know you're an expert?"
And the answer is "Because I told you I was, and I would know because I'm an expert!", then that begs the question, because the answer only answers the question by subtly assuming the the thing that the question is asking about, thus gives the appearance of answering it, but does not.
Wikipedia explanation
posted by -harlequin- at 7:08 PM on April 2, 2008


I've heard "seems how" used for "seeing as how", which is itself not great.
posted by puddleglum at 7:09 PM on April 2, 2008


SassHat: when people repeat the last word of an acronym

I can top that: ABS Braking System :-)

Staying with the car theme:
"wreckless driving"
posted by -harlequin- at 7:12 PM on April 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'm often irked by "literally" used to emphasize a metaphor, which of course would not be literal but figurative. I get so annoyed, it literally makes my head explode.

Actually, I only get annoyed when I catch myself doing it.

When I was in high school there was a trend of saying "same difference" to mean "same thing."
posted by hydrophonic at 7:12 PM on April 2, 2008


I very rarely hear "Catch-22" used correctly and I very frequently hear it wrong.
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 7:12 PM on April 2, 2008 [3 favorites]


flounder vs founder... I think this is another one where the misuse has become so common to have become an acceptable form.
posted by GuyZero at 7:13 PM on April 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Hang on,
I absolutely cannot stand all but, i.e.

I've all but finished the book.
So, Einstein, you're saying you've done everything except finish the book?
posted by mr. creosote

I thought "I've all but finished the book" means "I've nearly finished the book". Is that what you meant?
posted by hAndrew at 7:14 PM on April 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


Interestingly I've never heard "nonplussed" mean that new "american" meaning. I must be in the wrong (right?) circles. Although, I am one of the few people I know who actually *uses* nonplussed in occasional speech.
posted by TomMelee at 7:15 PM on April 2, 2008


A future boss once said he was 'wrapped' to hear that I'd gotten the job. That didn't make me especially eager to work with him.

On a the more colloquial side of things, the Aussie phrase 'flat out like a lizard drinking' means very slow, but I've heard people use it to describe something fast. I guess they miss the whole point of it, which is that 'flat out' is precisely what a lizard drinking is not.
posted by twirlypen at 7:16 PM on April 2, 2008


Thanks--"could care less," "towing the line," and the nonplussed example are exactly what I am talking about. I just heard someone say nonplussed in conversation, and thought to myself, 'Hmm, I do not think that word means what you think it means'...and am pleased to see that I was correct, particularly because the person in question is an insufferable idiot of the type who uses "irregardless" as TomMelee mentions (that one drives me insane). Thank you to everyone who is helping me to be even more smug than I already am!
posted by cosmic osmo at 7:16 PM on April 2, 2008


"I could care less", used to mean "I don't care at all". (instead of the proper "I couldn't care less")

Actually, when I was studying linguistics the phrase "I could care less" was used as an example of the use of sarcasm in language and how even children readily pick up on and can use this.
posted by Polychrome at 7:17 PM on April 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


In defense of "tabling" something: it means opposite things on opposite sides of the Atlantic. Makes international conference calls interesting.
posted by PatoPata at 7:20 PM on April 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


to indicate "Let's put this on the table and talk about it!" instead of "Let's put this away for now."

The first is British/Canadian parliamentary usage; the second is American parliamentary usage. Table (verb)

Usually context will allow the correct meaning to be derived, as with similar self-antonyms such as dust.
posted by dhartung at 7:20 PM on April 2, 2008


"Disinterested" used as a tarted-up way of saying "uninterested", without realizing it means "impartial".
posted by -harlequin- at 7:22 PM on April 2, 2008 [3 favorites]


The use of (as far as I can tell) non-word "incentivize" drives me nuts, and I've also picked up a strong aversion to "comprised of," which is my mother's pet linguistic peeve.
posted by KatlaDragon at 7:23 PM on April 2, 2008


Myriad
posted by interrobang at 7:23 PM on April 2, 2008


Huh. Link didn't work on OLPC Opera. Here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myriad
posted by interrobang at 7:24 PM on April 2, 2008


"The lion's share" is too-often used to mean "most of" when the whole useful point is that when the weaker predators share their catch with the lion, the lion takes it all.
posted by nicwolff at 7:30 PM on April 2, 2008


I periodically hear "savant" used to refer to someone who's a genius in all regards (e.g., Albert Einstein), as if it were a compliment. Of course, it actually refers to someone who is mentally handicapped in most capacities but has exceptional abilities in another way. (Incidentally, it seems that there exceptions, but I'm positive that the people I'm referring to are unaware of the subtle nuances...)

hydrophonic: You'd have loved the person that told me, "It literally blows my mind" not too long ago.
posted by fogster at 7:31 PM on April 2, 2008


It's an online-only thing but another ignorant-ism that's been surfacing more and more is people misspelling voila in a phonetic form, becasue they have no idea it's a French word. Wah-la, walla, wahlah, wallah, etc. Kind of off topic, as it's not a phrase, but it just gets under my skin.
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:32 PM on April 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


With baited breath!
posted by iconomy at 7:32 PM on April 2, 2008


It really irks me when people use the acronyms 'OCD' (obsessive compulsive disorder) or 'ADD' (attention deficit disorder) as adjectives instead of nouns. For example:

"I'm so ADD right now, I can't concentrate!"

or

"My mom is OCD, she can't leave the house without..." Whatever. You get the point.

You can *have* a disorder, but you cannot *be* a disorder. Gah! It pisses me off!
posted by chara at 7:32 PM on April 2, 2008


One of my pet peeves is when people say "The thing is, is that..." They seem to think that "The thing is" constitutes a noun, which requires an extra verb, when it seems to me that it would make more sense to say "The thing is that..."

Along those same lines, I hate it when people say, "The cat with long whiskers he died," or something to that effect - naming the subject twice (cat and he). Grrrr.
posted by Sassyfras at 7:32 PM on April 2, 2008


My pet peeve: "The reason being, is that..."
posted by Jemstar at 7:34 PM on April 2, 2008 [3 favorites]


It's not exactly wrong, but I can't stand it when people use the word "utilize" when they really should use the word "use". It's a way of tarting up your language to sound all smart but it's pointless syllables that get in the way of clear writing/speaking. "I used yellow paint here to get the effect" is easy for everyone to understand while "I utilized yellow paint here to get the effect" sounds like a dork trying to sound important.
posted by mathowie at 7:37 PM on April 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


Then there's redundancies -- one my Grandmother clued me in to, and now I hate it too, is "at this point in time" when either "at this point" or "at this time" would do just fine.
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:39 PM on April 2, 2008


I have noticed this one more and more lately: "Where's your shoes?" It should be, "Where are your shoes?" I hear it all the time, drives me batty.
posted by Sassyfras at 7:40 PM on April 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


It's an online-only thing but another ignorant-ism that's been surfacing more and more is people misspelling voila in a phonetic form, becasue they have no idea it's a French word. Wah-la, walla, wahlah, wallah, etc. Kind of off topic, as it's not a phrase, but it just gets under my skin.

Yes! I know exactly what you mean. I hate seeing 'viola,' too, because while it could easily be a typo, what if it's not?!
posted by cosmic osmo at 7:42 PM on April 2, 2008


I once had a boss who didn't understand the difference between "fiscal" and "physical", so he would say things like, "We need to be physically responsible this quarter. Physical with an F." He also frequently said "do a 360", "irregardless", and "for all intensive purposes." Dick made over 250K a year.
posted by sfkiddo at 7:45 PM on April 2, 2008 [6 favorites]


A little off topic, but redundancies make me cringe as well! When the song "Live and Let Die" is playing on the radio, I have to mentally change the line "And in this ever-changing world in which we live in," to, "...in which we're livin'." Even if I turn the song off, I have to correct the line in my head. It's probably an illness.
posted by chihiro at 7:48 PM on April 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


I realize that this isn't answering your question, but the emphasis in "grain of salt" isn't on the fact that it's a grain, it really is on the presence of salt. "A giant grain of salt" isn't ruining the phrase or missing the point.
posted by Simon! at 7:49 PM on April 2, 2008


flounder vs founder

You're awesome. No one ever seems to notice this one.

Another vote for: "jive", "for all intensive purposes" and "disinterested".
Haven't heard "doesn't cut the mustard" in awhile.

Wah-la, walla, wahlah, wallah, etc. Man, that drives me crazy.
"I did a 360 on the issue" There's really no way I could avoid laughing in somebody's face over this.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 7:50 PM on April 2, 2008


Whoops, missed your post. Sorry!
posted by Simon! at 7:50 PM on April 2, 2008


I'm consistently irritated by the "thus-and-such is comprised of" formulation. And it's almost always tossed off by bright, well-educated people. Oh well.

I'm a bit partial to the escape goat, though. Some errors create such perfect mental images...
posted by BundleOfHers at 7:57 PM on April 2, 2008


All the really annoying ones have been listed, but... phased instead of fazed. Using nouns as verbs.
posted by polyglot at 7:59 PM on April 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


"Administrate".

Kill them all.
posted by genghis at 8:00 PM on April 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Irregardless.
posted by delladlux at 8:02 PM on April 2, 2008


Fogster is incorrect about "savant," which really does mean a straightforwardly brilliant person. The correct term for someone who's brilliant at one thing but otherwise mentally deficient is "idiot savant." Leaving out the "idiot" may be politically correct ... but it's incorrect.

Lately I've been noticing a lot of people saying, "This is not a hypothetical question," when in fact they are asking a hypothetical question. They apparently think that "hypothetical" means "wildly unrealistic." You're asking a hypothetical question if you have to start the question with the word "if."

"By definition" is often used to refer not to something that's true by virtue of a word's definition but rather to something that's true because of facts about the world. Example: "By definition, a Global War on Terror fought by the US alone is a prescription for defeat."

"Split the baby" (or "the wisdom of Solomon") is often used to mean "find a workable compromise," which is the opposite of what splitting the baby means in the story to which the phrase alludes.

"Allude" is used to mean "directly refer," when in fact it means "indirectly refer."

"Fulsome" is used in a positive sense (usually "fulsome praise"). The proper meaning is negative (egregiously insincere).

I agree with the above answers to your question about "beg the question," but I would add this practical point: Forget about using "beg the question" unless you're confident about its exact meaning. If you just mean that something raises a question, you should just say ... "It raises the question of ___" (or "brings up the question," "raises the issue," etc.). No point in trying to impress people with a high-brow phrase like "beg the question" if you're not sure what it means.
posted by Jaltcoh at 8:03 PM on April 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


• near miss
• half empty
begging the question

Ugh.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 8:08 PM on April 2, 2008


I once knew a guy who would actually say "viola" (as in, the instrument) instead of "voilà". Must have been the victim of a typo or something, I never figured it out.

Anyway, carry on.
posted by wsp at 8:10 PM on April 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


I often see "could of" "should of" or "would of" where it should be "could've" "should've" or "would've." And I've seen those in otherwise intelligent, well-edited books.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 8:11 PM on April 2, 2008


Are you really sure about the grain of salt?
posted by fleacircus at 8:15 PM on April 2, 2008


Seconding Pater Aletheias' concern.

Permit me to add my fury for the folks who misuse the word "drastically," e.g., "That coat of paint drastically improved the look of the house." Bullbleep! It improved the look of the house dramatically.

Some days I think English should be studied as a dead language.
posted by bryon at 8:16 PM on April 2, 2008


I've noticed people swapping the meanings of "infer" and "imply".

And it's not really what you're looking for, but I'd like to register a complaint about the use of "impact" as a verb meaning "affect".
posted by hades at 8:21 PM on April 2, 2008


I can't believe no one's posted this yet... Begging the question.
posted by you're a kitty! at 8:23 PM on April 2, 2008


"It's the exception that proves the rule."

From phrases.org.uk: To the untutored ear it might appear to mean 'if there's a rule and I can find a counter-example to it, then the rule must be true'. This is clearly nonsense. For example, if our rule were 'all birds can fly', the existence of a flightless bird like a penguin hardly proves that rule to be correct. In fact it proves just the opposite.

If we have a statement like 'entry is free of charge on Sundays', we can reasonably assume that, as a general rule, entry is charged for. So, from that statement, here's our rule:

You usually have to pay to get in.

The exception on Sunday is demonstrating that the rule exists. It isn't testing whether the incorrect rule 'you have to pay' is true or not, and it certainly isn't proving that incorrect rule to be true.


Another one that drives me crazy is "The proof is in the pudding." Not only is it used incorrectly, but it has been mangled from the original "The proof of the pudding is in the eating."

Holy shit, what's that proof doing in my pudding!? Get it out!! GET IT OUT!!
posted by number9dream at 8:25 PM on April 2, 2008 [6 favorites]


I've heard people say "a long road to hoe" instead of the correct "a long row to hoe" (meaning something that will be tiring and/or time-consuming). Why someone would hoe a road, I have no idea.
posted by amyms at 8:26 PM on April 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'm going to challenge twirlypen on "flat out like a lizard drinking" being an ironic saying. I think it is more an emphasis, saying you are so flat out that you compare to an animal that lives flat to the ground, but then leans a little flatter to drink.
Like "busy as a one armed wall paper hanger'.
posted by bystander at 8:27 PM on April 2, 2008


It's scary how often "if not" is used incorrectly

"Chomping at the bit" is like an ice-cream headache. I had a fiend once who would tell me what "the rub" was. "The reason is because" sends me into a cold rage.
posted by breezeway at 8:28 PM on April 2, 2008


Heh. I saw a poster on a hockey BBS use "padel stool"* instead of pedestal.

I hate hate hate it when people (and products!) use decadent to mean "rich" or "luxurious" instead of the older meaning of degenerate.

Decadent Degenerate cookies, indeed.

*probably meant paddle
posted by porpoise at 8:35 PM on April 2, 2008


"Escape goat" looks to be a return to the original inspiration of the coiner of 'scapegoat', William Tyndale:

Azazel is the word translated as "scapegoat" in the King James Version of the Bible (Leviticus chapter 16). In 1611 King James' translators borrowed the word scapegoat from William Tyndale's translation from around 1530. Tyndale had translated azazel (the name of the cliff the goat was pushed over, or more likely the demon it was sent out to in the desert) as ez ozel - literally, "the goat that departs"; hence "the goat that escapes," or, for short, "(e)scape goat."

I wonder if that passage crossed his mind as he was being strangled at the behest of Henry VIII for the crime of translating the Bible into English.
posted by jamjam at 8:36 PM on April 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Here's a huge list of common redundancies here.

My favorite though is not listed - HIV virus. As in Human Immunodeficiency Virus virus. :)
PIN number is also up there - Personal Identification Number number... There are many more of the same kind....
posted by GrooveStix at 8:47 PM on April 2, 2008


Oh, you know what's fun? When people mix up expressions having picked up on the wrong contextual cue.

"Wow, that rose is so red. It's, like, pitch red."
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 8:50 PM on April 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Why someone would hoe a road, I have no idea.

They're probably the same people who like to tow lines.
posted by Neiltupper at 8:55 PM on April 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


gel instead of jell, as in "Once we get the org chart in place for the sales department, I'm sure you'll all do your best to gel."
posted by Joseph Gurl at 9:01 PM on April 2, 2008


Depreciate instead of deprecate.
posted by reishus at 9:07 PM on April 2, 2008


"I'm often irked by "literally" used to emphasize a metaphor, which of course would not be literal but figurative. I get so annoyed, it literally makes my head explode.

Actually, I only get annoyed when I catch myself doing it.

When I was in high school there was a trend of saying "same difference" to mean "same thing.""



hydrophonic - I too used to be driven batsh*t crazy by this oddity. And then I found this. Turns out that that usage is (arguably, at least) correct. Turned my world upside down, it did.

As to "same difference", I agree. How annoying.
posted by Shiva88 at 9:10 PM on April 2, 2008


"...in one fowl swoop". (Argh! duck!)

or maybe it was

"...in one foul swoop."

Either way, it was hard to keep a straight face and I was not in a position to get away with laughing.

"Walla!" drives me absolutely bonkers.

twirlypen: On a the more colloquial side of things, the Aussie phrase 'flat out like a lizard drinking' means very slow, but I've heard people use it to describe something fast. I guess they miss the whole point of it, which is that 'flat out' is precisely what a lizard drinking is not.

I can't get my head around that at all. I've always heard "flat out" & "flat out like a lizard drinking" to mean that someone was incredibly busy, like "flat chat".
posted by goshling at 9:18 PM on April 2, 2008


Some people don't understand the difference between flaunt and flout.
posted by jayder at 9:24 PM on April 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


I hate hate hate it when people (and products!) use decadent to mean "rich" or "luxurious" instead of the older meaning of degenerate.

I know I'm nitpicking, but they're the same meaning or very closely linked - "decadent" is degenerate with strong overtones of indulgence, hedonism/debauchery, excessive consumption, etc. So luxurious - more indulgence than is necessary, perhaps misspent wealth, are a fair fit. Most degenerate things would never be described as decadent.
I imagine what's bugging you isn't the meaning, more likely the lighter connotation "excessive consumption - which is a good thing!" instead of "excessive consumption - which is a bad thing!". Similar meaning, different moral interpretation :-)


Actually, when I was studying linguistics the phrase "I could care less" was used as an example of the use of sarcasm in language and how even children readily pick up on and can use this.

I think this is wrong. While I have seen "I could care less" being used sarcastically, this is very rare in my experience - it is almost always used non-sarcastically, and when pointed out that it means the opposite, the person using the phrase thinks about it for a moment, realises that this is true, then gets huffy, and says that it doesn't matter because everyone knows what is meant anyway. If it were being used sarcastically, the person pointing out this error would be the one making an error, and the person using the phrase would mock them for failing to grasp this most basic fact.

So I'd say it's a good example of children learning a phrase by context without ever thinking about or realising what the words mean. It's also regional - where I come from, everyone says "I couldn't care less", and if you said "I could care less" in the same straightforward way but clearly meaning the opposite, they'd wonder what you were smoking.
posted by -harlequin- at 9:30 PM on April 2, 2008 [3 favorites]


The one that drives me nuts is when people say "You can't have your cake and eat it too", because, of course, you *can* have cake and eat it. The correct expression is "You can't eat your cake and have it too." which makes much more sense.
posted by jasper411 at 9:33 PM on April 2, 2008 [4 favorites]


Although someone already mentioned that "could care less" could have a sarcastic sense to it (nobody ever complains when people say "big deal", and note our well-established "slim chance" vs. "fat chance"), I do enjoy occasionally referring people to have a look at the Caring Continuum. It's just funny.

As for some of the complaints about words changing syntactic categories (e.g. nouns becoming verbs, ADD used as an adjective), I think it's too bad that you think of these as misuses or things worthy of being pet peeves. They aren't logically wrong, misleading, or semantically contradictory. Personally, I find these sorts of changes to be illustrations of the wonders of language evolution in action. Amazingly, people can take words from one grammatical category and productively move them into another verbal category, often on the spot, and the listener picks up immediately on the speaker's intended meaning (whether annoyed or not).

It's so cool, when you step back and think about it.
posted by kosmonaut at 9:44 PM on April 2, 2008 [5 favorites]


You know, I always thought that nonplussed meant "a little bit confused, but not so confused as to be majorly distressed or anything." So ... kind of in between the two definitions that have been linked? Have I been using the word right?
posted by bettafish at 10:27 PM on April 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


The use of "decimate" in place of "obliterate" makes me a little cross-eyed.
posted by moonlet at 10:37 PM on April 2, 2008


I also kinda disagree on the cake thing. Obviously, "Have you cake and eat it too" is an old proverb that dates back such that "have" in this context meant "keep", which is quite correct. Not to mention the wording of the proverb is correct by definition, but:

of course, you *can* have cake and eat it.

I'd argue that you can only say this by assuming sloppy language (such a contraction that isn't there, or a tense that isn't there, or misinterpreting) - you can have cake and then eat it, yes. You can have cake and eat some of it, yes. You can have had your cake and eaten it too, yes. You can have your cake and be eating it, yes. But you can't have your cake and eat it too, unless you interpret "have" to mean consume - "eat your cake and eat it too" - which the context indicates would be a misinterpretation.

I'm not a lawyer, but if "have your cake and eat it too" was in a contract as legalese, or written in formal logic for a computer program, I suspect you couldn't have your cake and eat it too :-)

posted by -harlequin- at 10:42 PM on April 2, 2008


Personally, I can overlook most of these if they would only leave imply and infer alone. I've heard someone with a Ph.D. in English misusing these terms.
posted by sonic meat machine at 10:43 PM on April 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


The exception that proves the rule" is a pet peeve of mine, because people use it to win arguments, even though it doesn't 'mean' anything.

From the link (wikipedia):
This expression appears confusing because how a cited exception to a rule ("Bob was not late yesterday") could prove or give support for the rule itself ("Bob is always late") is counterintuitive. The misunderstanding originates from the idiom's popular use. The proper use of this idiom is (according to Fowler's third edition, 1996) that the proof "'tests the genuineness or qualities of', no more no less" of the rule. The presence of an exception establishes the existence of a stated rule. For example, a sign that says "parking prohibited on Sundays" (the exception) suggests that parking is allowed on the other six days of the week (the rule).
[edit]
posted by prophetsearcher at 10:45 PM on April 2, 2008


Similar to "nonplussed" being used to mean "not bothered": "bemused" being used when it is clear from the context that the person means "amused."
posted by Orinda at 10:45 PM on April 2, 2008


Also, it bugs me when people can't keep i.e. and e.g. straight. (sorry, person in-thread who is guilty).

and the butchering of "thus".
posted by prophetsearcher at 10:49 PM on April 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


5th'ing fucking irregardless.
posted by ncc1701d at 10:57 PM on April 2, 2008


Re: "That coat of paint drastically improved the look of the house." Bullbleep! It improved the look of the house dramatically.

It can do both. They mean different things. Drastically=rapidly, and that's certainly something you might say about a house.

posted by alexei at 11:15 PM on April 2, 2008


One that is gradually moving up my annoyance charts is incorrect use of reflexive pronouns. "I'll set up a meeting between me and yourself".
posted by markr at 11:26 PM on April 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


OFF-OF. It burns in my ears like acid every time I hear it...

He got off of the airplane/It fell off of the table.
NO! NO! HE GOT OFF THE AIRPLANE! IT FELL OFF THE TABLE!
posted by rhinny at 11:39 PM on April 2, 2008


"would have" instead of "had"

As in, "If he would have remembered his umbrella, he would have stayed dry."
posted by emelenjr at 11:50 PM on April 2, 2008


Here are a whole bunch!
Paul Brian's Common Errors in English
posted by baserunner73 at 12:27 AM on April 3, 2008


Nauseous misused for nauseated. Nauseous means that you make someone else want to throw up, not that you feel sick yourself. Nauseated means that you feel sick.
posted by item at 12:54 AM on April 3, 2008 [1 favorite]


I say viola (like the instrument) on purpose, because I think it's funny. Even funnier if the person hearing me is clearly bothered by that but too polite to correct me.

My top annoyance is when people mess up corporate buzz-phrases - not only are the stupid phrases bad enough, but the incorrect use torques the hell out of me.

Hey, ctmf, remember that report that I wanted next week? I need you to pull the string on that a little earlier, eh? How's Friday? How's right after you figure out what "pull the string" means?

Maybe they're doing the same thing to me, though. Heh.
posted by ctmf at 12:55 AM on April 3, 2008


My sister says 'pacifically' instead of 'specifically' and it makes me very cranky. (She doesn't have a speech impediment and and in most other ways she's not stupid at all).
posted by h00py at 12:57 AM on April 3, 2008


Sorry, should have read question more closely, you're looking for phrases or colloquialisms. Okay, my sister also says 'doggy dog world' and she's not being ironic.
posted by h00py at 1:00 AM on April 3, 2008


"He went as white as a sheep"

True story.
posted by Jofus at 1:11 AM on April 3, 2008 [2 favorites]


Interestingly, I fucking LOVE using anymore in positive statements. I picked it up a coupla yearn ago (wasn't colloquial where I grew up) and am very pleased to do it often anymore.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 1:29 AM on April 3, 2008


Probably too late to be of any use, but "peruse" means to read thoroughly and carefully, not to skim or glance, as it is most commonly used these days....
posted by Grither at 4:44 AM on April 3, 2008


Have your cake and eat it.
posted by The Monkey at 4:53 AM on April 3, 2008


I'm not sure if this fits with your definition, but the phrase "touch base" has multiplied like kudzu over the last few years.

I'm not even sure what it's supposed to mean but I'm pretty sure it's misused.

Phone Message: "Hi Jeremias. Joan here, I'd like to touch base with you regarding your enrollment status . . .blah blah."

So, one touches a base when playing baseball, is that what it means? Or is it two people who touch base during a game of tag? Figuratively speaking, what the hell is "touch base"?
posted by jeremias at 5:03 AM on April 3, 2008


Just to clarify, after my coffee-less rant, I know what the phrase means, so I guess it's not really "misused", it's just annoying.
posted by jeremias at 5:10 AM on April 3, 2008


I had a long, serious argument with a college roommate over "chest of drawers" vs. "Chester drawers." He was of the "Chester" persuasion, and had this rather detailed explanation involving English cabinetmakers and trans-Atlantic trade etc. He was still wrong, of course, but it was entertaining.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:15 AM on April 3, 2008


Why someone would hoe a road, I have no idea.

In my neighborhood of DC there are plenty of folks 'ho'ing the road all night.

I once knew a guy who would actually say "viola" (as in, the instrument) instead of "voilà".

I do this all the time, not because I don't know the difference, but because I am a cheese dick. I have taken both French and viola classes so I certainly know the difference.
posted by Pollomacho at 5:18 AM on April 3, 2008


"Begs the question" would be at the top of the list, for me, followed by using "was" instead of "where" when you're in the subjunctive mood (e.g. "If I was you, . . ." instead of "If I were you, . . .").

I've recently become annoyed by the construction "A man by the name of . . ." or "A writer by the name of . . ." instead of the far better and more concise "A man named . . . ." And I'm also not a fan of "so" used as vague intensifier, instead of as half of the "so . . . that" conjunction (e.g. "He is so mean!" as opposed to "He is so mean that I'm going to smack him."

Grading papers, I get lots of them. My all-time favorite is "In lame mans terms . . . ." Two errors in four words. Nice!
posted by wheat at 5:36 AM on April 3, 2008


"Enormity" used as a synonym for "friggin' huge."
posted by mcwetboy at 5:39 AM on April 3, 2008


Nthing "utilize"

My dad goes cross-eyed with rage when he hears people using the word "cement" to mean "concrete" (cement's the powder you mix with sand and gravel and water to get concrete). He's also mightily annoyed by the use of "impact" as a verb.

I once had to edit a document produced by a consultant. She had used the word "synergize" to mean "compile".

I also have a friend who says "uncredible". Mind you, English isn't her first language. But it's still funny.

And, I grew up thinking that giving something to charity was "giving to amnity". It should be "amity", but my grandfather misunderstood the word, and passed the mistake down through the family to us.

posted by LN at 5:49 AM on April 3, 2008


A future boss once said he was 'wrapped' to hear that I'd gotten the job. That didn't make me especially eager to work with him.

Are you sure he didn't mean "rapt"? Pretty common usage in New Zealand, at least.
posted by gaspode at 6:00 AM on April 3, 2008


Some people say "vitriol" when they mean "vehemence." But it's usually because they're in a tizzy or full of shit, or just don't know any better (or any worse, as the case may be). Poor saps.

I've heard people say "War War I" and "War War II" before, and also "The Silver War." The "Silver War" guys sometimes refer to General Pickett's "calvary" charge, as well, which I assume led straight to Golgotha.
posted by breezeway at 6:32 AM on April 3, 2008


Another one: "He's an unbelievable actor" to mean he's a great actor. If an actor is unbelievable...
posted by Jaltcoh at 6:37 AM on April 3, 2008


"Touch base" is a reference to a baseball rule, 7.08(d). After a batter hits a foul ball, baserunners are required to briefly return to their bases. The rule is never actually enforced, but it may never actually be broken, either, since returning to the base prevents a quick, easy pickoff.

So "touch base" carries with it the feeling of a reset, in which players are reassured of their starting position on the basepath.
posted by breezeway at 6:48 AM on April 3, 2008


I say uncredible...to mean something that everyone else says WOW to that I say meh to. "That's...that's....uncredible (with defeat in voice.) I think lots of people say it as an adaptation of The Simpson's Ralph character saying "That's unpossible!".

Yes, I do realize that "uncredible" would mean that someone or something couldn't be trusted. I prefer to make up my own words.
posted by TomMelee at 6:50 AM on April 3, 2008


Here is one I used to say: "It's all downhill from here..."
What I wanted to imply was that, everything would be easy from this point on - similar to going down a hill on skis or a bike or a sled - just cruising and enjoying the ride, rather than struggling to go up the hill.

But most people interpreted going downhill as a bad thing, falling down, taking a dive, etc.

So I stopped saying it.
posted by bitteroldman at 6:50 AM on April 3, 2008


I've seen someone write 'per say' in a letter when they meant 'per se'. Urgh.
posted by Happy Dave at 7:28 AM on April 3, 2008


Desultory is frequently used by people to mean "listless" (and I don't blame them - it sound like that) but actually means changing from one thing to another and suggests rather frenetic behaviour
posted by peterbl at 7:33 AM on April 3, 2008


"Exponential growth" for any rapid growth that is not, mathematically speaking, exponential.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 7:37 AM on April 3, 2008 [1 favorite]


when people use the word monsoon to refer to a single downpour...
posted by entropone at 7:45 AM on April 3, 2008


My Gramma's Austrian boyfriend (of forty-odd years) taught himself English with a dictionary and a newspaper subscription. He didn't always get things right, particularly when using idioms.

For example, one afternoon he wanted to teach me how to change the oil in the VW. His routine was to drive out into the desert, drain the oil into the sand (yes, yes, awful), then refill with fresh thirty weight.

When I asked where we would be doing this chore, he said, "Oh. Someplace vay out in the moonrocks."

"Hmm ... Where?"

"Out in za moonrocks. The moonies. You know. The countryside."
posted by notyou at 7:47 AM on April 3, 2008 [2 favorites]


People often use plethora incorrectly. It doesn't mean "a lot", it means "an excessive amount, too much".
posted by blue_beetle at 8:08 AM on April 3, 2008


"Bad grammar" or "incorrect grammar" used to refer to incorrect usage which is still grammatically correct.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:28 AM on April 3, 2008 [1 favorite]


Not a phrase, but a screwed-up word: orientate. "He orientated himself upright." No. He ORIENTED himself. One attends orientation in order to become oriented. One orients. That's why finding your way with a compass is orienteering, not orientateering. This makes me insane with rage.
posted by cereselle at 8:46 AM on April 3, 2008 [1 favorite]


One that has real-world life-or-death implcations for some people is the problem with inflammable.

Inflammable is a perfectly good English word synonymous with flammable. In French, however, the exact same spelling means the opposite: not flammable. So, there are UN and other international standards, specifying that dangerous goods must be marked either flammable or non-flammable, particularly for transport packaging, shipping manifests, etc....

The wrinkle is that some internal US regs (usually state regs) don't entirely comply with the international standards yet. This makes for interesting conversations between US truckers and Transport Canada dangerous goods inspectors sometimes.
posted by bonehead at 8:48 AM on April 3, 2008


Pouring over a book.
posted by tastybrains at 9:19 AM on April 3, 2008


Electrocuted as a synonym for shocked. I've always wanted to respond to that with "WHOAMG! A ZOMBIE!" Instead, I just look upon the person with mild contempt.
posted by owtytrof at 9:32 AM on April 3, 2008


Ironic.
posted by mpls2 at 9:35 AM on April 3, 2008


"steep learning curve" used to mean something is hard to learn. a steep learning curve actually indicates that the thing is learned rapidly.
posted by mpls2 at 9:37 AM on April 3, 2008 [2 favorites]


Oh, my favorite, only heard in Maritime Canada: the word unthaw to mean, well, thaw.

I tried pointing out how illogical that phrase was, and these perfectly intelligent people could see what I was saying, but they couldn't let go of their beloved word, irregardless (jk!) of how ridiculous it was.

Also, it drives me bats when people write about "peddling" bicycles to mean pedaling them.
Riding the bike is different from selling it. Usually.

And seconding jayder's example of flaunt vs. flout. Flout the rules, don't flaunt them. Flaunt your new outfit, don't flout it.
posted by bassjump at 9:39 AM on April 3, 2008


"Penultimate" used as "really ultimate."

Using "myself" instead of "I" or "me." It's used wrong almost every time I hear it ("you can give that to myself"). The only time it should be used is if "I" is the subject of the sentence, as in The Doors' "[I] woke up this morning and got myself a beer."

People often use plethora incorrectly. It doesn't mean 'a lot', it means 'an excessive amount, too much'.
El Guapo: Many pinatas?
Jefe: Oh yes, many!
El Guapo: Would you say I have a plethora of pinatas?
Jefe: A what?
El Guapo: A *plethora*.
Jefe: Oh yes, you have a plethora.
El Guapo: Jefe, what is a plethora?
Jefe: Why, El Guapo?
El Guapo: Well, you told me I have a plethora. And I just would like to know if you know what a plethora is. I would not like to think that a person would tell someone he has a plethora, and then find out that that person has *no idea* what it means to have a plethora.
posted by kirkaracha at 9:46 AM on April 3, 2008


Quantum leap, to refer to something large or big. Quantum also appears in phrases it has no business being in -- I see signs for "Quantum open house tours". Sorry, I'm too tall for that.

Besides, I'm looking for a place my escape goat won't get out of, so I need a high fence.
posted by yohko at 9:48 AM on April 3, 2008


Hokey pokey instead of hocus pocus or hokum. "Chiropractics is a load of hokey pokey," while a fun image, does not mean what you think it means.


Oh, you know what's fun? When people mix up expressions having picked up on the wrong contextual cue.

"Wow, that rose is so red. It's, like, pitch red."


This one's so fun that my partner and I do it on purpose, specifically with "piss like a racehorse."

"He's as angry as a racehorse."
"I have a committee meeting that I'm dreading like a racehorse."

And my favourite:

"I love you like a racehorse."
posted by arcticwoman at 9:55 AM on April 3, 2008 [2 favorites]


Whoa is me.

Whoa, indeed.
posted by prefpara at 10:05 AM on April 3, 2008 [1 favorite]


kirkaracha, just as an interesting side note, I was told by my Gaelic languages professor in university that the use of "myself" instead of "me" or "I" is derived from Gaelic. In Gaelic, you can have emphatic versions of the personal pronouns, like "me fhein", or "mise", meaning "me myself". It found its way into Hiberno-English in phrases like "Look who it is! It's himself!"
posted by LN at 10:06 AM on April 3, 2008


Pitch-white (as mentioned above), suppos-ev-ly for supposedly, bower for borrow, and my all-time love to hate word, GRANTED. As in, "my boyfriend is a dick. GRANTED, he does X and Y, but..." Arrrrrg...
posted by wafaa at 10:27 AM on April 3, 2008


"Suppose to be..." Or, really, any time a terminal letter is left off because the speaker (or, worse yet, writer) doesn't hear it: breast or terrorist used in a plural construction.

Decimate to mean anything other than "reduce by 10%."

"A friend of Bill's." A friend of Bill's what?

"The reason why is because..."

Ale as a fancy substitute for beer.

Oh, and when people use acronym when they mean abbreviation. It's only an acronym if it spells out another word: ATM isn't an acronym; NASA is.
posted by MrMoonPie at 11:02 AM on April 3, 2008


"On accident" for "by accident."
Never heard this one until I moved to the west coast.
posted by gennessee at 11:22 AM on April 3, 2008


supposably
a whole nother
posted by arcticwoman at 11:38 AM on April 3, 2008


Also, it bugs me when people can't keep i.e. and e.g. straight. (sorry, person in-thread who is guilty). (prophetsearcher)

When an attorney I worked with told me about an entire case hinging on the use of i.e. (that is) and e.g. (for example), I made it a point to learn what they were on the spot.
posted by chan.caro at 11:40 AM on April 3, 2008


Hokey pokey instead of hocus pocus or hokum. "Chiropractics is a load of hokey pokey," while a fun image, does not mean what you think it means.


hokey pokey is synonymous with monkey business, foolishness, or trickery. So perhaps it does mean what they think it means.
posted by oneirodynia at 12:13 PM on April 3, 2008


I previewed, and didn't see "That's water over the bridge/under the dam". Yikes.
posted by wafaa at 12:48 PM on April 3, 2008


My pet peeve list:
- Irregardless
- Literally
(As in "I was literally scared to death". Hmmm... It sounds like you're still alive.)
- I could care less (I have never, never, never heard this uttered "sarcastically". Only stupidly.)

It's not an idiom or colloquialism, but it irks the snot out of me. When people pronounce "height" as "heighth" (to be similar to width or length). Grrrr!!!

MrMoonPie - I was going to challenge you (that acronyms have to "spell out another word". But a quick googling resulted in conflicting opinions. What is your source?
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 1:01 PM on April 3, 2008


What is your source?
My source? Ancient Greece?
posted by MrMoonPie at 1:43 PM on April 3, 2008


There was a military guy being interviewed on Bill Maher's show about military-related issues, and he said: "You know, sometimes it's hard to be partial about these things." No, it's hard to be impartial. Being partial is easy!
posted by Jaltcoh at 1:52 PM on April 3, 2008


"chauvinist" is often incorrectly used to mean "male chauvinist".

chauvinism is partiality to a particular group. before second wave feminism in the sixties, the term was generally used to describe fanatic patriotism. the word is derived from the name of nicolas chauvin, a french soldier who unquestioningly followed napoleon. chauvinism can take any form, including male chauvinism or female chauvinism.
posted by brooklynexperiment at 2:01 PM on April 3, 2008


Jaltcoh, I saw another military guy talk about finding a caché of weapons. Which reminds me--to say that someone has a particular skill in a certain area, you should pronounce forte as "fort"; when you wish to instruct someone to play a musucal passage loudly, then you pronounce it "forté." And while I'm on that subject, it really bugs me when folks pronounce classical Latin as if it were modern Italian (I'm looking at you, Pope). Iulioos Kaisar said "Waynee, Weedee, Weekee," you know.
posted by MrMoonPie at 2:13 PM on April 3, 2008


Thanks, MrMoonPie, for the decimate one. I always thought it meant to reduce TO 10%, not BY 10%. Luckily, I don't think I've ever dropped it in conversation.
posted by owtytrof at 2:26 PM on April 3, 2008


Regime vs. regimen. It's a military regime -- it's an exercise regimen. Dammit.
posted by Devils Rancher at 2:31 PM on April 3, 2008


A spendthrift is someone who is bad with money, not good.
posted by Shebear at 2:37 PM on April 3, 2008


People rarely use "I can't seem to" in a way that makes sense. "I can't seem to find my keys" is stupid unless you mean that you are unable to appear as if you have found your keys. Just say "I can't find my keys" if you mean that you are unable to find your keys. If you can't remember something, don't tell us that you can't seem to remember it, just tell us you can't remember it. If you can remember it, but only vaguely, don't tell us that you "seem to recall" it, because we don't need to hear about how you seem. We can see you putting on the big seeming to remember show -- squinting your eyes and scratching your head like it's such hard work to remember something, and then getting that eureka look in your eyes -- but we're waiting to hear what you remember.

If you're speculating about someone or something else, say seem: "he seems to be lost" makes sense if you don't know that he's lost but he appears to be lost. Don't say "I seem to be lost" unless you don't know whether you don't know where you are, perhaps because you've been hit over the head.
posted by pracowity at 3:33 PM on April 3, 2008


"Reign in" instead of "rein in" pisses me right the fuck off, and I can't believe I remembered that just now.
posted by casarkos at 4:29 PM on April 3, 2008


Uhm...Ale is a beer with a top fermenting yeast and often w/o hops. So technically all ALES are BEERS while not all BEERS are ales.

As recently as today I listened to someone say "supposeBly" instead of supposedly. Listen closely, lots of people put B's in there.
posted by TomMelee at 5:45 PM on April 3, 2008


OMFG the "eck cetera, eck cetera, eck cetera" is like nails on a chalkboard for me too. I noticed Steven Baldwin kept saying it on The Apprentice. Why not order an expresso while you're at it.
posted by blahtsk at 11:29 PM on April 3, 2008


I notice even really smart people overuse "literally" to an amazing degree. Personally, I have to smack myself for saying "really sort of", which I do to much.

"That's really sort of cool!"
posted by zardoz at 12:13 AM on April 4, 2008


Decimate to mean anything other than "reduce by 10%."

And just how often do you find a use for "decimate" in that sense? Approximately never would be my guess. If it weren't for the figurative meaning, "decimate" would have disappeared from the language by now.

Why do you want to decimate "decimate?" (And no, I'm not asking why you want to reduce the usage of "decimate" by 10 percent.)
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 7:42 AM on April 4, 2008


Being from the South, the word "hose pipe" bothers my fiancée to no end. Of course it is only a garden hose to water the plants, grass, etc... The fact that it refers to the same item twice has an effect not only with her, but her (mainly northern) family as well.
posted by bach at 9:13 AM on April 4, 2008


Like "hot-water heater," bach?
posted by MrMoonPie at 9:18 AM on April 4, 2008


I have a friend who INSISTS on saying "volumptous" for voluptous. And a coworker who says "You bet!" to absolutly everything, like, You: "Good night!" Her: "You bet!"
posted by Penelope at 7:50 PM on April 4, 2008


"The thing is, is that..."

I've heard this used in a triple-decker:

"What it is, is: 'Is this the right thing to do?'"
posted by TiredStarling at 12:10 PM on April 8, 2008


Very late resource: Common Errors in English
posted by never used baby shoes at 2:17 PM on April 11, 2008


One I've seen in writing a lot lately is "reek havoc." I hate it when havoc smells.
posted by Devils Rancher at 3:44 PM on April 12, 2008


I did it in a "fit of peak."
posted by Devils Rancher at 10:35 AM on April 16, 2008


After the Y2k meme, people who didn't understand the metric convention being used in that abbreviation started incorrectly plugging subsequent years into it, eg saying 2k4 to mean the year 2004, unwittingly talking about the year 2400.
posted by -harlequin- at 7:21 PM on April 17, 2008


When people pronounce "height" as "heighth" (to be similar to width or length). Grrrr!!!

Offer them "breadth" or "depth" as a substitute, so they can complete their set of "th" and leave "height" alone :-)
posted by -harlequin- at 7:28 PM on April 17, 2008


harlequin: I can't see any way to interpret 2k4 except 2004 (2k+4). How do you get 2400? It's not 2k4h (for hecto=100).
posted by alexei at 5:00 AM on April 26, 2008


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