31 Commonly Misused Words and Phrases That Tarnish Your Writing

31 Commonly Misused Words and Phrases That Tarnish Your Writing

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I know. People don?t like grammar cops.

And yes, language does evolve, so sometimes new words and phrases come to the fore, or their usage changes over time (like, literally). I?m okay with that.

But as professionals, written communication is so important, and especially now since the digital world is so driven by the written word. So I?m hauling out my list again of some of the most commonly misused words and phrases I see in my work as a content creator and frequent editor in hopes that they?ll help you avoid tripping on them in your own work.

I just want your writing to be as awesome as you are. So here we go.

1. Hear, Hear.

The phrase isn?t ?here, here?.

?Hear, hear? originated in the British House of Commons and is a short form of the cheer for ?hear him, hear him?. They don?t do applause much in Parliament, so this phrase is a substitute for that.

2. For all intents and purposes

The phrase is not ?for all intensive purposes?. I suppose it?s possible that your purposes could be intense, but the right phrase is ?intents and purposes?.

3. Et cetera

The abbreviation ?etc.? when spelled out is ?et cetera? not ?ex cetera?. It?s Latin for ?and the rest?. You might also run into ?et al.?, which is an abbreviation of the Latin et alia and means ?and others?. You need the period after ?al.? to indicate that it?s an abbreviation.

4. Rein it in

Think horses. When you rein something in, you?re slowing it down or bringing it more under control. ?Reign? is the word used to describe the rule of a monarch. Similarly, if you give someone ?free rein?, you?re letting them have a bit of leeway, not giving them a throne or a kingdom.

5. In regard to

It should either be ?as regards?, ?with regard to?, or ?in regard to?. ?In regards to? is a popular misuse.

6. You and Me vs. You and I

First trick: The other person comes first in the sentence (think of it as good manners). So it would be correct to say ?Susan and Me?, not ?Me and Susan?. Now, as for whether you use ?me? or ?I??

Second trick: Read the sentence without the other person in it, and see if it sounds right. For example: ?Amber sent copies of her book to Susan and I?. Remove Susan, and you?re left with ?Amber sent copies of her book to I.? Nope, that doesn?t work. Here, the proper personal pronoun is ?me?.

Or ?Jim and me went to the movies?. You wouldn?t say ?Me went to the movies? unless you?re Cookie Monster, so here you?d use ?I?.

7. Cite/Site/Sight

?Cite? means to reference, quote, or mention something. You?d cite an article or a blog post in your book, perhaps.

?Site? is a location. Construction site, site of the crime, even the virtual world of the web site.

?Sight? is either something that is seen (You?re a sight for sore eyes!), the act of seeing something (you might sight land in your binoculars), or even an aspiration (like setting your sights on a particular career goal). And by the way, you go ?sightseeing?, not ?siteseeing?.

8. Could Have/Should Have

The proper phrase is ?could have? or ?should have?, and the contraction is ?could?ve?. In our patterns of speech in American English, both the phrase and the contraction sound like ?could of? or ?should of? when pronounced (and that?s likely why this confusion started in the first place) but they?re incorrect.

9. Couldn?t Care Less

If you could care less, that means you actually are capable of caring less, which isn?t what you?re going for when you?re driven to use this phrase. If the truth is that you can?t imagine caring any less than you do about something, the proper phrase is ?couldn?t care less.?


Not ?supposably?. Ever.

11. Enamored Of

This one isn?t nearly as common. and I confess it?s a bit nitpicky as the incorrect version is pretty widely accepted now. The correct phrase is actually ?enamored of?, not ?enamored by?. ?Enamored with? is okay, but not necessarily preferred if you?re the grammar snot type. If you?re ?enamored by? Justin Bieber, that actually means he?s all smitten with you, you lucky dog.

English is weird, I know.

12. Dialogue

A dialogue is a conversation or discussion. It?s a noun, a thing. You don?t ?dialogue? with someone, you ?have a dialogue?. Yes, I know it?s become common in business language to use dialogue as a verb. But it?s jargon and it sounds terrible in correspondence.

We could do a whole post on jargon, but for the moment, I digress.

13. Flesh out and Flush out

You ?flesh out? an idea to add substance to it and develop it further. Think adding more flesh to the bone. You ?flush out? the rabbit from the hedges or the ducks from the marsh or the criminal from his hiding place.

14. Gibe and Jibe (and Jive)

If your ideas don?t mesh well, they didn?t jibe (which means they didn?t agree). If they didn?t jive that probably means they needed a lot more rhythm and that guy from Airplane. A ?gibe? is a joke or a tease.

15. Say Your Piece

If you?re about to ?say your piece?, that means you?re about to speak aloud a piece of your writing or perhaps give a piece of your mind. You don?t ?say your peace?.

At a wedding, you either ?speak now or forever hold your peace?, which means to maintain your silence forever and ever. If you?re ?holding your piece? I certainly hope you?re a police officer or in the privacy of your own home.

16. Cue and Queue

If you?re standing in line, you?re in a queue or ?queuing up?. If you?re scheduling a post or piece of content, you?re ?queuing it up? or ?putting it in the queue?. It?s such a strange word to look at and type, but it has French origins and is correct in these contexts when you mean to put something into a schedule or process.

Cues are things like pool sticks and indicators for actors to speak their parts.

17. Case In Point

This is often confused as ?case and point?, but that?s incorrect. We don?t really use the phrase ?in point? much anymore ? that?s kind of old English usage when discussing something that?s relevant ? but the correct phrase is ?case in point? when you?re referencing an example to support something.

18. Toe The Line

You don?t tow it (unless you?re Mater).

Toeing the line is about teetering on the edge of that line so closely that you?re near to stepping over it. Sassy people like me toe the line often and nearly get in trouble. But not quite. Mostly.

19. If you don?t mind my asking?

This one is a bit of an obscure and little-known grammar thing, and one of those rules where ? when you use it correctly ? people are probably going to think you?re doing it wrong when you?re one of the few who is doing it right.

But the proper way to say a phrase like this with a gerund ? that?s a verb ending in -ing ? is to use the possessive form of the adjective ?my?, rather than saying ?If you don?t mind me asking?. Think of it like this: the asking is an action that belongs to you. Another example? ?Do you think my speaking at this event would be a good career move??

It?s a common misuse but not a commonly known rule so I?m chucking it in here as a ?well isn?t that nifty?.

20. Adverse and Averse

If I had a dollar for every time I read this one?

Adverse is an adjective meaning ?bad?, like having an adverse reaction to a food or a bee sting, or when referring to adverse weather conditions.

If you?re against doing something or avoid it whenever you can, you?re averse to it. I have an aversion to peas. Whoever decided that mushy green balls constituted food needs to have their taste buds checked.

21. Home In

If you?re getting closer to a location or an idea or the central point of an argument, you?rehoming in on it. The phrase comes from the old use of homing pigeons. The common misuse is to say hone in on something, based on mishearing home as hone when the phrase is spoken aloud.

Hone is a perfectly legitimate word, which means to sharpen (as in a knife edge). But hone inisn?t the correct phrase.

I?ll admit in advance that, like many language usage things, there is some debate over this one. Some say hone in is an appropriate use since it?s become so common.

I realize language evolves, in some cases for good reason (say, we need a word to describe something that hasn?t existed in that context before). But in this case, when there?s a perfectly reasonable and correct alternative that means what you intended in the first place and the misuse is simply due to hearing something incorrectly, why not learn and use the correct phrase? <end curmudgeonly grumbling>

22. Irrespective

This is the correct word when you mean ?regardless of?. Irregardless is not a correct word. By its very nature it is a double negative. The end.

[Ed. ? People have passionately argued with me on this one. Just because it?s in the dictionary does not make it correct or good grammar. Just because people use it doesn?t mean it?s good, either. I specifically worded this to say it?s not a correct word since, technically, the word exists even if I think it?s the sloppiest piece of garbage known to the English language aside from text-speak and I believe you sound silly when you use it. Hate on me all you like.]

See my previous point about accepting incorrect things simply because people persist in using them incorrectly. Grammar snob, out.

23. Champing at the Bit

Believe it or not, this is the correct phrase, not chomping at the bit. Champing means making loud biting or chewing noises, and of course the bit part is in reference to the bit of rubber or metal that?s in a horse?s mouth when they have a bridle on. They love to chew at it noisily, thus the origin of the phrase.

There you go. Impress your friends. They?ll think you?re wrong, but that?s ok. You can send them to this post (or Google) and gloat.

24. Bated Breath

When you are anticipating something so much that you?re hardly breathing, you?re waiting with bated breath. The verb abate means to lessen or reduce, which is where this word comes from.

If you wait with baited breath you might need to ditch the herring and grab a toothbrush.

25. Principal and Principle

Principal means a bunch of different things, but the confusion is usually because the words are pronounced exactly the same way so it?s impossible to tell in spoken language which is being used.

The first use of principal is when it is an adjective meaning first, primary, or main; for example, ?the principal reason that I?m concerned with this contract is??.

As a noun, principal is sometimes used in job titles, as in the ?principal architect?. You have a principal of a school. The part of your mortgage that isn?t interest is the principal (i.e. the main part of the loan). The word has several meanings with this spelling, so when in doubt, look it up.

A principle is a noun only and means a rule, doctrine, belief, law, or tenet (which, by the way, is not a tenant. Those live in buildings or dwellings or some kind. Hey! Bonus grammar oopsie.).

26. Sneak Peek

Often written incorrectly as sneak peak, this phrase is about getting a special glimpse at something, not a secret mountain summit. Unless you?re climbing a mountain secretly, in which case I guess you could have a sneak peak.

But most often what you mean to write is sneak peek. Don?t let the ?ea? part of sneak make you write it twice.

27. Loath To

If you are unwilling or reluctant to do something, you are loath to do it. If you also hate it, you might indeed loathe it. But they are definitely different words, and leaving the ?e? off of loath is not a mistake!

I loathe doing laundry, but I am loath to let it pile up for weeks since I?ll run out of underwear.

28. Fewer vs. Less

The simplest way to remember which of these to use: Fewer typically refers to individual, discrete numbers of things that you could count one by one. There are fewer people in that line than this one. (Though that never seems to be the case when I choose a grocery line.)

Less refers to volume, or an amount. There is less water in that glass than there was before. There is less interest in reading newspapers these days.

The possible confusing exception here is around time or money. We usually refer to those as amounts rather than specific numbers, so we have less time and less money than we often wish to.

29. By Accident

Please. For the love of all things sacred. The proper preposition here is by. Things happen by accident, not on accident. Please? Thank you.

30. By popular demand: Affect vs. Effect

In the last post I said I wasn?t going to tackle some of the more commonly addressed errors since they?re in so many places. But several people mentioned and asked about this one, so here goes. This is a confusing one, so it?s no wonder it so often gets mangled.

Most of the time, you can think of affect as a verb and effect as a noun. For example, you affectsomething (influence it) and end up having an effect (result) on it. You also have personal effects in your briefcase or that you collect when you make bail. The Mythbusters guys are awesome at special effects.

A less common but correct use of affect as a verb is also to put on an exaggerated display. It?s most often heard in phrases like ?affecting an air of sophistication?.

The weird ones:

  • Effect as a verb meaning ?create?, as in ?I?m eager to effect change in this organization.? Business gurus, take note.
  • Affect as a noun, where the emphasis is on the first syllable (AF-fect). It refers to an emotion or an emotional state. This usage isn?t common unless you?re a scientist or doctor of some kind, but it?s a legitimate use of this word.

I know. It?s confusing. Did I mention English is weird? It is.

31. Used To

You used to be a kid and now you?re an adult. Or most of you are, anyway.

The smooshed-together ?d? and ?t? between used and to makes this phrase sound like use to. Same goes for supposed to (not suppose to)

Some Resources?

Your very best friend is Brians Common Errors in English Usage. Paul Brians is an Emeritus Professor of English at Washington State University. It isn?t a sexy website, but this is a wonderful compilation of common errors in English usage. When in doubt, look it up here, save yourself the mistake and learn a little something in the process. It?s helped me ? a bonafide word nerd ? loads of times. Like I said, English is weird.

If you?d like an actual book, Strunk and White?s Elements of Style is a great standby. Some of the rules in there are pretty strict and traditional but it?s a wonderful and witty reference overall. Get the new graduate in your life a copy before they head off to college or their first job.

What other words and phrases do you get mixed up and confused? Which drive you batty when you hear or read them? Leave your examples and questions in the comments and we?ll get them sorted out!


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