When it comes to idioms (words or phrases whose meaning is established by usage rather than from the meaning of individual words), misuse is not unusual, especially when the misuse consists of substituting the wrong word for the right one. Having heard a phrase spoken but not written, we're likely to write what we've heard. Add to that the number of English words that sound alike but have different meanings, origins, or spelling (homynyms), and our chances of misuse increase.
You may "wet your whistle" in a restaurant, according to one idiom, finding as you do so that the aromas wafting from the kitchen "whet your appetite," according to another. If you've never seen "whet" written and are not familiar with its meaning (to sharpen or to stimulate), you might well believe "wet" your appetite to be correct, however implausible it sounds.
But idioms often are implausible and have little or no logic to them. That's part of what makes them difficult, especially for non-native speakers. Try "you have another think coming," an idiom we often use in response to an idea or action with which we disagree. "I think I'll take your bike this morning," one cyclist says to another. "You have another think coming," says the bike's owner. This idiom is, by the way, also subject to misuse; many people substitute "thing" for "think," resulting in the wrong "You have another thing coming."
Correctness does matter in both writing and speech; it is one of the measures audiences use to judge your credibility. While an occasional error may be overlooked or forgiven, some won't, and audience members may take them as a sign of carelessness, obliviousness, or ignorance.
How can you stay on the good side of an idiom?
- Proofread well.
- Google an idiom you intend to use to make sure you have its correct spelling and meaning.
Some commonly misused idioms include:
- "Toe the line" means to stay within a boundary or an expected behavior, to obey the rules. This idiom is sometimes wrongly written as "tow the line."
- "First come, first served." This idiom means that the first who arrive or obtain tickets will be the first to be served. Its incorrect usage is "first come, first serve," and suggests that the first must serve all those who come next.
- If your good intentions "go by the wayside," you've put them aside or abandoned them in favor of something more important or urgent. If they "fall by the wayside," you've given them up, failed to achieve what you intended. In both idioms, "waste side" is sometimes erroneously substituted for "wayside."
- "Home in on the issue." In this idiom, "home in" means to focus or concentrate. It's sometimes confused with "hone," a verb which means "to sharpen." Although you can hone many things—writing skills, a carving knife—if you're talking about focusing or concentrating, you "home in on."
- "Bated breath," not "baited." In the idiom, drawn from Shakespeare's use of the phrase, its first, in "The Merchant of Venice," "bated" is a contracted form of "abated," a word that means to stop, lower, slow. So when the breath stops or slows in the face of a powerful emotion—fright or joy, anticipation, sorrow, delight—it's "bated."
Have you noticed other misuses of idioms? If so, drop us a line, and we'll assemble a list to share with our readers. We're waiting with bated breath!