Phrases you’re using wrong

A blog post at Writer Unboxed: Phrases You’re Probably Using Wrong

How many of you immediately said, “I bet I’m not.” Everyone? Yes, I thought so! That’s why I feel a bit annoyed at blog post titles that use the word “You” in connection with “doing it wrong.” It’s intrinsically condescending toward the readers of that post, which is particularly out of place when the readers of that blog probably enjoy language and words, which I would sort of imagine is true of the readers of Writers Unboxed and am very sure is true of readers here.

Let’s just check out those phrases …

 “Home in on.” I know you want to say “hone in on.” –—> I do not. I know perfectly well it’s “home in on” and why that’s the correct phrase. I think your incorrect phrase looks and sounds strange. I doubt whether many people actually say “hone in on.”

You walk hand in hand with your beloved—your hand in their hand, of course. Not “hand and hand.” —-> I know that. Everyone knows that. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that mistake.

Are there ANY phrases here which people actually use wrong? Let me scan down the list … nope. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any of these mistakes in print. “Probably” using wrong my foot.

One exception: the first phrase, the one used to introduce the post, is “begging the question.” But that one has taken on the previously incorrect meaning, so now it has two meanings, both accepted (by me, I mean, because this is not a hill I would personally die on). The first meaning is “assert something iffy as an unproven premise for your argument.” The second, newer, meaning is “invite a particular question.”

I will suggest a phrase that I think a lot of people do get wrong:

I could care less. If you could care less, then … you could care less, so I guess you care kind of a lot? The actual phrase that makes sense is I couldn’t care less. That’s the one that means it’s not possible to care less because I already don’t care at all. I think I DO hear and see people say “I could care less” when they plainly mean “I couldn’t care less.” That’s the one phrase that leaps to my mind when someone says something about phrases that are used incorrectly.

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16 thoughts on “Phrases you’re using wrong”

  1. I remember having arguments with friends over could/couldn’t care less when we were teenagers. I insisted it only made sense as “couldn’t care less” for the very reason you state here, and they insisted back that it didn’t matter whether it made sense or not, “could care less” was the correct phrase because that’s what everyone said, and the meaning was based on the general understanding and usage rather than grammatical logic. Which raises (not begs) some interesting linguistical questions, but I still think it’s wrong!

  2. Unrelated question about flowers.
    There are (at least) two kinds of flowers with a round yellow heart and white petals, on different size plants. I have the impression that both are called ‘daisies’ in English. Is that correct?

    One kind is small, about half an inch across, and grows on small plants (about toe high) that flourish in (not too tightly scalped) mown lawns.
    In Dutch, these are called Mom-the-little-darlings (Madeliefjes), supposedly because that was what little girls would say when they started flowering in late spring, “Mom the little darlings are here again!” because that meant they could start making daisy chains and circlets from them again, apparently a favorite pastime of little girls through the ages.
    As in English those are named daisy chains, I think those small flowers & the plants they grow on must be called daisies.

    Then there’s the much larger version, about 2 inches across, that grows on a plant that’s about knee high and thrives in unmown wild meadows, and has different leaves from the tiny plants. Those are called “Margrieten” in Dutch, from the French “Marguerite”; and from pictures labelled as “daisies” in English, it looks as if those go by the same name.

    If so, how do you distinguish between the “Mom-the-little-darlings” kind and the large “Marguerite” kind?
    Reading about daisies I find juggling the two plants mentally quite distracting, until it’s clear which one is meant.

  3. Estara Swanberg

    I’ve seen “peaking /peeking my interest” – shouldn’t it be “piqueing” my interest? Isn’t that derived from French? Like “in a fit of pique”? Not being a native speaker I’m always careful with correcting phrases.

  4. I agree with Estara on that phrase, it should be the French spelling, and I’ve seen both incorrect alternates in published books. I figured that to be due to a lack of French lessons in US schools, and people knowing the phrase only from having heard it.

  5. Hanneke–
    Daisy refers to
    A) Any flower with relatively wide white petals (or sepals) and yellow center. (Not like an aster.)
    B) oxeye daisy (the tall one)
    C) common daisy (the short one)
    D) any flower with vaguely daisy-like shape. (Capeweed, coneflower, small sunflower, etc)

  6. From a linguistics perspective, if enough people start using it a particular way it becomes correct, right? That’s how these things change over time (but we can still be grumpy about it)

  7. Ah, but asters are Michaelmas daisies!

    I also have Swan River daisies, painted daisies, and yellow marguerite daisies in my garden. (Can not, alas, find the blue daisies. They are so pretty.)

  8. I’ve always interpreted “I could care less” as having an implied “but not much less”. Or maybe something like “I could care less, but it would be difficult”. Caring rather a lot isn’t required, just infinitesimally more than some other amount which could be zero, or negative…

  9. I’ve also seen peeked/peaked/piqued confusion in publications. Along with misused ‘himselfs’ and ‘peripheral’ for either periphery or peripheral vision.

    I will add to the list:
    What I would really like to see stop is people doing things “in tandem” apparently as meaning ‘together’ which actually is “in concert.”

  10. Hanneke, Pete is completely right. “Daisy” is a generic term that refers to anything that kind of looks like a daisy, meaning a whole lot of flowers in the Compositae family, also called the Asteraceae family. As a rule of thumb, exactly as Pete says, if the flower has fairly wide white petals and a yellow center, people will call it a daisy.

    The oxeye daisy is sometimes called the mother’s day daisy in older books about flowers because it reliably blooms around that time of year. It’s a weed, but a pretty weed. I, along with lots of other gardeners, let it seed itself around with the irises because they bloom at the same time. I think this plant must be the margrieten because it’s exactly as you describe, about two feet high and grows in any unmowed wild area. But there’s also a marguerite daisy, which is a non-hardy annual that’s sometimes grown in gardens.

  11. Kristi, I have to say, I like your interpretation! That makes perfect sense. I think I’m going to interpret it that way from now on and stop feeling peeved at this phrase.

    Yes, it’s very definitely piquing my interest and any other spelling in that phrase is wrong. Yes again, I’m sure that results from not seeing or not noticing the written phrase.

  12. Piquing for sure–that’s one that always stops my eye when I’m reading.

    How about “if worse comes to worse?” It should be “worse comes to worst,” as in an already bad situation becoming the worst it can be. I cannot remember the last time I saw someone use that one correctly.

    I also don’t know when “on accident” became common usage, but it should be “by accident,” darn it!

  13. Deb, YES to both of those. I also wonder why people think it’s “worse” both times, when it only makes sense to say “If worse comes to worst.”

    And yes, I agree, I dislike the now-customary “on accident.” I’m like, “On? Don’t we know what “on” means? It means “on.” Why are you saying “on” when you obviously mean “by”?

    Yep, both phrases are common and produce a mild fingernails-down-the-blackboard feeling for me.

  14. Is it ‘quote, unquote’ or ‘quote, end-quote?’ The second seems right to me, but I’m not sure.

  15. It’s technically “quote … end of quotation,” I believe, but that takes too long, so people mostly pick either of the forms you mention. Which doesn’t bother me; this is one I don’t care about, except that a character who speaks with great formality won’t say “unquote,” but “end of quotation.”

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