9 commonly misused words and phrases

Oct 04 2012 Published by under Kindness and Compassion


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Can you spot the major typo in this magazine headline?

I find typos all the time—in articles, on signs, on TV news captions, and in business letters. I’ll admit it. I’m a spelling and grammar snob. As a kid I looked forward to diagramming sentences in English class—really—and thought spelling bees were terrific fun. Language and words are fascinating to me.

I’m not saying I’m perfect. I make typos, too. If it weren’t for my eagle-eye husband, you would see plenty more of them on my blog. But when I turned the page of my October issue of BRAVA and saw the major typo pictured above, I gasped out loud.

Here’s the problem. A king or queen reigns, but you rein in a horse. The headline should read, “Cancer survivor Michele Wilkinson turned a troubling diagnosis into an opportunity to take life by the reins.”

Now I happen to know that BRAVA recently lost its esteemed editor-in-chief, so the office was probably in a state of disarray, struggling to put this issue together without her. Still, it pains me to think that professionals in the publishing business don’t know the difference between reigns and reins. On the other hand, I doubt many people will notice. In the grand scheme of things, typos are pretty low on the list of things to worry about.

Mistakes are unavoidable. Even big, “What was I thinking?” mistakes. We all make them. When you make a mistake, the most important thing you can do is show yourself some compassion and not beat yourself up over it. As the saying goes: To err is human; to forgive, divine. This includes forgiving ourselves for our own mistakes, not just forgiving others for theirs.

After all, mistakes are sometimes the best catalysts for positive change. For example, if I had never dated men who were wrong for me (really, really wrong), I may never have recognized when I found the right one.

Some mistakes, however, are simple to avoid. Here are some phrases I see and hear misused all the time. Are you guilty of making these common mistakes in English?

  1. Nip it in the bud, not butt. To nip something in the bud means to stop a problem before it grows into an even bigger problem. Like the bud of a tree. Get it? Nipping something in the butt will only piss it off.
  2. Tip your hand vs. Tip your hat. I often hear people say, “Tip your hat” when they in mean, “Tip your hand.” To tip your hand is an allusion to card-playing, meaning you are letting your opponent see what you are planning to do. Tipping your hat to someone is a compliment. “I tip my hat to you, sir!”
  3. Coming down the pike, not pipe. Think of the sorts of things that flow through pipes. Would you want to look in there and see what’s coming? I didn’t think so. The correct word is “pike,” as in turnpike, meaning the highway.
  4. Flesh out the plan, not flush. Flushing out a plan would mean getting rid of it and starting over. If your meaning is that your plan needs further development, then your plan needs fleshing, not flushing. This phrase is based on the idea of adding flesh to a picture that only shows the bones of a creature.
  5. Take someone for granted, not granite. Yes, I have actually heard and seen “Take it for granite.” How does a person mistake another for a slab of rock mined from the earth? I am extremely perplexed by this one.
  6. I bawled my eyes out, not balled. To bawl means to cry loudly. Ball, when used as a verb, means to wad something up, or is vulgar slang for sexual intercourse. So, unless you literally fucked out your own eyes, you mean bawl.
  7. My curiosity was piqued, not peaked. This is an easy one to get wrong, because the word “peaked” seems to make sense. Your curiosity is going up, like a peak. The correct word, however, is piqued, which means stimulated.
  8. The point is moot, not mute. Moot is word we don’t use much anymore, which may be the source of confusion for some people. A moot point is an irrelevant question, or a matter of no importance. For example, it’s a moot point whether the chicken or the egg came first. Mute means silent or incapable of sound.
  9. Scapegoat, not escape goat. A scapegoat is a patsy, someone who is made to take the blame for something he or she didn’t do. When spoken aloud, it does sound a bit like “escape goat,” but even that explanation only goes so far. Think I’m making this up? Check out this headline from the New York Post.

I’m sure there are many, many more, but these are the ones I can think of off the top of my head. What English mistakes drive you batty? Got any favorite typos to share? Did I make a typo in this post? Tell me about it in the comments!

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10 responses so far

  • Stephanie says:

    I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t catch it until I read your first sentence. Errors, like the ones you listed, make me crazy! One of my main pet peeves is the misuse of the pronouns me and I. It’s not, “This is a photo of Rick and I at the lake.” AHHHHH! Comma blunders also drive me nuts I so badly want to correct people, but I often just cringe and keep my mouth shut. I KNOW there are mistakes that I make, and often I know they’re mistakes, but I am not always sure what the correct protocol is. I have read the book Eat, Shoots and Leaves, by Lynne Truss, in both the adults’ and children’s versions. I am a former teacher who also read the kids’ version to my class, along with Truss’s other titles, Girl’s Like Spaghetti and Twenty-Odd Ducks. Another book I have is Right, Wrong, and Risky: A Dictionary of Today’s American English Usage. I am not proficient enough to call myself a snob, but I am a snob wannabe!

    (I would have italicized the titles above, but don’t know how to do it except for in email or word processing!)

    Feel free to correct any errors that I made. I WANT to know!

    • Cheryl says:

      Oh, I make mistakes, too. I still get lay and lie mixed up all the time, and affect/effect, capitol/capital…The English language is tricky. Thanks for reading, and don’t be so hard on yourself! Nobody likes the grammar (or punctuation) police, so I avoid correcting people unless I’m getting paid to edit something, or if it’s someone I know very well.

  • Alecia Torres says:

    I hate when people say “I could care less.” It’s “I COULDN’T care less” !!!!! Now I am paranoid, like I might write or spell something incorrectly;)

    • Cheryl says:

      Yeah, that one is so common I figure it’s a lost cause. Don’t worry about making a mistake. I didn’t have Tom proofread this before I posted it and the instant he got home he spotted a typo. I told him to leave it, and it’s driving him crazy. :-)

  • Tani says:

    I’ve been a proofreader/editor/writer for 24 years and still can’t remember how to spell some words. That’s why I’m glad God invented dictionaries and Al Gore invented the Internet. Yesterday, I learned the correct spelling of ad nauseum is ad nauseam.

    When it comes to typos, my favorites are ethnic restaurant menus. Always good for a chuckle. But when it comes to professional pieces like magazines and newspapers, I expect better. If someone is using effort and money to interview a source, write a story and present it to thousands of readers, at least have someone proof it.

    I was a good speller in school, but too shy to take part in spelling bees. In 6th grade, I purposely misspelled words in a test so I wouldn’t make the cut.

    I hope I didn’t make any dumb mistakes in this post :-)

    • Cheryl says:

      Tani, almost everything I know about AP style I learned from you. You are an amazing proofreader and a super-duper writer. The part about throwing the spelling bees makes me sad, but I know you don’t like to be the center of attention. I never won a spelling bee. I still remember being one of the finalists in a middle school bee and choking on the word “ladle.”

  • Amy says:

    Yup, you made a typo. Second line of example number two: “when they in mean.” Sorry. Nice post. I like a good grammarian rant.

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