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Top Ten Misused Phrases

Updated on September 21, 2010

Guaranteed to make you look foolish

They're called malapropisms, Dogberryisms, acyrologia or eggcorns. But, these misused and mangled phrases by any other name just make the user look foolish at best, but more likely, stoopid! Expect at least a snicker if you utter them; they could even help you to get passed over for a job.

These are some of the more humorous, misused phrases I've heard coming from the mouths of native English speakers.

Please don't use them.

"Take for Granite"

In Greek mythology, it was said that if you gazed upon Medusa, a Gorgon with hair made of serpents, you would turn to stone.

If you've recently looked at Medusa, it's entirely possible that others will "take you for granite."

However, if you're trying to say that someone never shows gratitude for the things you do, or expects you to always be available, the correct phrase would be "s/he takes me for granted."

Example: "I stop at Starbucks every morning and pick up a coffee for him. He just nods at me and doesn't even say thank you anymore. I think he takes me for granted."

"Doggy Dog World"

One of the many times I heard this malapropism was at a company cocktail party. It came from the mouth of a young, arrogant consultant who thought my concept for team building was unrealistic. When he explained that expecting such cooperation was unrealistic because it was a "doggy dog world," I nearly spit white wine on myself. I suppose I could've and should've corrected him, but my evil twin sister took over and ... well, I didn't.

As a dog lover, I actually prefer this mangling of the phrase. I don't like the idea that there are people who will do anything to serve their own interests, even if it harms others. So, using a cute phrase like "it's a doggy dog world," somehow makes a situation a little less odious. However, the correct phrase is dog eat dog world. Makes much more sense, doesn't it?

Example: "People will do anything to get ahead. It's a dog eat dog world."

"For All Intensive Purposes"

I'll admit, on this one I'm being picky. "For all intensive purposes" actually makes some sense. But, it's still wrong.

The phrase simply mean "under most practical situations or circumstances", or "in every practical sense." But the correct usage is either for all intents and purposes or in all intents and purposes.

Example: "We're still need to formally interview other candidates for the job, but I'm impressed with you. For all intents and purposes, you have the job."

"Could Care Less"

I hear this used all the time. I see it written all the time.

If you "could care less," it means that something has some importance to you and that you care at least a little. If you want to say that it's impossible for you to have less interest in something, then the phrase is I couldn't care less.

Example: "The football match was a complete bore. I couldn't care less about the outcome."

"Escape Goat"

Say you own a half a dozen goats. You wake up one morning and you discover there are only five goats. One of your goats is an "escape goat."

However, if you're referring to someone who is bearing the blame for something someone else did, then the correct word is scapegoat.

Example: "The poor guy, he's completely innocent. But they have to find someone to blame. He's a scapegoat."

"Bob Wire"

Who's Bob?

I grew up in the suburbs. When I came across my first spiked fence, I was well into elementary school. When I was told what it was, I remember wondering, "Who's Bob?" and "Why did he leave his fence there?"

The correct term is barbed wire and it's a type of fencing wire that has sharp edges (that are "barbed"). It was originally designed and used for deterring animals. It's since evolved in use and can be found not only in the countryside, but in cities, prisons and sometimes suburbs. It's used to keep animals and people both in and out.

Example: "The post office looked like a prison. The wall around it had barbed wire all along the top."

And Bob's your uncle!

"All Woks of Life"

I quite enjoy Chinese cooking and as a result, I actually know something about the materials that should be used. A wok is a round-bottomed pan that can be used in a variety of ways, i.e., stir-frying, braising, steaming, deep-frying and eve for making soup. They are commonly made from cast-iron or carbon steel, but you can also find them in steel with Teflon or Xylan coating or in aluminum. They can range in size and can have either stick or loop handles.

I have just provided you an overview of "all woks of life."

However, if you wish to refer to people of all occupations, social classes, lifestyles, cultural backgrounds, etc. the phrase is all walks of life.

Example: "We held a demonstration, the participants were as diverse as I've ever seen. They were from all walks of life."

"Nip it in the Butt"

The phrase refers to dealing with a problem when it is still small and before it grows into something larger and more dangerous.

In a couple of my travels I've actually had men nip me in the butt. I can assure you that by doing so, they did not fend off a problem, quite the contrary. They had a huge problem on their hands.

The correct phrase is nip it in the bud and it originates from horticulture. If you prune a flower in its budding stage to keep it from growing, you "nip it in the bud."

Example: "If we ignore this problem, it's just going to grow. We need to take action. Le's nip it in the bud."

"Play It By Year"

When a musician plays intuitively or instinctually without printed music, one says s/he "plays by ear." Though I was not able to find a clear etymology for the phrase, my assumption is that this is where it comes from.

The correct phrase for improvising or adapting as you go along is to play it by ear. If someone tells me we're going to "play it by year," I assume that it will take a very, very, very long time.

Example: "We've got lots of options for Saturday night. Let's see how we feel and play it by ear."

"Heineken Remover"

Contrary to what one might think, this term does not refer to a miracle spot remover that will Shout out the remains of last night's beer bash that landed on your favorite t-shirt. This malapropism refers to a technique used to assist a choking victim. It involves standing behind the victim, wrapping your arms around his or her torso and using your hands to apply pressure on the bottom of the diaphragm. It's more commonly and correctly known as the Heimlich Maneuver.

Example: "He was choking on his cheese sandwich, I got behind him, grabbed him and performed the Heimlich Maneuver. He spit up the piece of bread. I was the hero of the evening!"

No joke, I've heard this used more than a couple of times by different people. And, they weren't drunk on Heineken.

I welcome comments - Share you own favorite misused phrases

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    • profile image

      Lolac 3 years ago

      The phrase "all the sudden" makes me cringe every time I hear it or see it in print. The correct phrase is "all of a sudden." Get it right, people!

    • corinnemwestphal profile image
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      corinnemwestphal 4 years ago

      @anonymous: Thank you for your comment. I suggest you re-read the opening sentence which makes clear what this variety of errors are called.

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      If you want to talk about incorrect usages, these are not examples of malapropisms. A malapropism is a technique used by authors, not by characters. If a person errs unintentionally, it's merely that, an error. To use the wrong word intentionally in an effort to make a point is a malapropism.

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      anonymous 6 years ago

      @anonymous: @Ching - so is for all intensive purposes a mondegreen, eggcorn or malapropism? I'm betting on mondegreen, but not 100%. Thanks!

    • corinnemwestphal profile image
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      corinnemwestphal 6 years ago

      @asiliveandbreathe: This one's cute ... though incorrect, it sort of work. ;). Will add this to my list for a Misused Phrases Part 2. :)

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      corinnemwestphal 6 years ago

      @LouiseKirkpatrick: Thank you for your blessing :-)

    • LouiseKirkpatrick profile image

      LouiseKirkpatrick 6 years ago from Berkshire, United Kingdom

      LOL - it never ceases to amaze why people use phrases which (if they thought about them!) make no sense at all - excellent lens blessed by this Squid Angel as part of the "Back To School Bus Trip"!

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      anonymous 6 years ago

      I've never heard anyone actually mis-state these phrases, just use them in the wrong context. That's funny. Must be the Texas drawl.

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      JoshK47 6 years ago

      I always laugh whenever someone talks about nipping something in the butt - great lens. :)

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      anonymous 6 years ago

      Don't know if this fits precisely in this category, but certainly must fit in another. I hear "these ones" or "those ones" all the time and it drives me crazy!

      Try "these" or "those" all alone; no help needed.

    • asiliveandbreathe profile image

      asiliveandbreathe 6 years ago

      I came across this recently:

      Do one to others as you would have them do to you.

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      Kapalbility 6 years ago

      Wow, I think I used doggy dog world in a blog post. Time to edit! Thanks!

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      anonymous 7 years ago

      Hey! Great article, and great malapropisms and eggcorns! I wrote the "For all "intensive" purposes" article referenced at the end of this article. For @dannystaple, you're thinking of a mondegreen which I also write about in my article. "All woks of life"--good one!

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      anonymous 7 years ago

      We do this, don't we? A fun lens, you had me smiling and nodding! Now I'm almost afraid to say anything, lol!

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      dannystaple 7 years ago

      I've heard a couple of these. What it reminds me of more was my mishearings of song lyrics, sometimes forming quite silly nonsense in my head. Anyway - good fun lens!

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      Gail47 7 years ago

      Great lens - word of mouth does a lot in passing on the misspoken phrases, because we pickup what we hear if we don't know any better. Really enjoyed the humor you shared on this lens.

    • corinnemwestphal profile image
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      corinnemwestphal 7 years ago

      @Deborah LM: Well, evidently you were in numerous, perhaps good, company. :-) Thanks for coming!

    • corinnemwestphal profile image
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      corinnemwestphal 7 years ago

      @nukemdomis lm: :-) pleasure ... and you're not alone!

    • corinnemwestphal profile image
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      corinnemwestphal 7 years ago

      @asiliveandbreathe: LOL. Well, maybe the person meant that specific ocean. :-). As for Eg Sedera, I just posted a new lens on mispronounced words. It's fresh off the presses, so can't be easily found: http://tinyurl.com/y84r3lf

      Part 2 is on its way though. thanks!

    • Deborah LM profile image

      Deborah LM 7 years ago

      Growing up hillbilly, I thought it was "bob wire" for many years. That's all I ever heard! LOL

    • nukemdomis lm profile image

      nukemdomis lm 7 years ago

      The could care less is a phrase that I have incorrectly used in the past. I couldn't care less about my past. Thanks for learning me something.

    • asiliveandbreathe profile image

      asiliveandbreathe 7 years ago

      Looking forward to the next part! Here's two more for you:

      The Specific Ocean - instead of Pacific Ocean.

      Egg Sedera - instead of Et Cetera

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      Sherry Venegas 7 years ago from La Verne, CA

      OOps, scapegoat was my error. Found that out about 10 years ago.

    • corinnemwestphal profile image
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      corinnemwestphal 7 years ago

      @anonymous: Many thanks for the blessing!

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      resabi 7 years ago

      A blessing on your head, er, lens. Yay literacy.

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      anonymous 7 years ago

      Funny, blessed.

    • corinnemwestphal profile image
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      corinnemwestphal 7 years ago

      @resabi: Thx fer da blezzing. Huzzah fer literasee! :-)

    • corinnemwestphal profile image
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      corinnemwestphal 7 years ago

      @norma-holt: A very belated thank you for your blessing and feature. Now that the lazy days of summer are over, I hope to have "part 2" coming up.

    • corinnemwestphal profile image
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      corinnemwestphal 7 years ago

      @anonymous: I'll keep these in mind as I contemplate "part 2" ;-) Thanks!

    • norma-holt profile image

      norma-holt 7 years ago

      Great topic and you have certainly done your homework. *-*Blessed*-* and featured on Sprinkled with Stardust

    • Charmcrazey profile image

      Wanda Fitzgerald 7 years ago from Central Florida

      These are hilarious. I know I never use them. And I absolutely never knew there were books about malapropisms. Or even the name for them. This isn't really the same thing, but my husband says happy birfday. And I always hit him for hit. There is "NO F IN BIRTHDAY" I tell him.

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      anonymous 7 years ago

      Here are a couple...

      I'd just as soon / I'd just assume

      Right off the bat / Right off the back

      Might as well / Mind as well / Mine as well

    • corinnemwestphal profile image
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      corinnemwestphal 7 years ago

      @myraggededge: Ha, you caught me. =) In fact, I meant English-English for exactly the reason you cited. "British English" is, indeed, not a single language.

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      corinnemwestphal 7 years ago

      @myraggededge: I am, actually working on a Part 2 of this lens. Thanks for the additional ideas. ;-)

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      Achim Thiemermann 7 years ago from Austin, Texas

      English is my second language, and I wondered sometimes if I was wrong when I heard someone say, "I could care less". It just didn't make sense to me.

      This is a fun and educational lens. Thanks! :)

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      myraggededge 7 years ago

      @corinnemwestphal: LOL! I'm sure you mean 'British-English speakers', as England is only one of the nationalities in the British Isles. 'English-English' sounds better though. Living in Wales I hear a lot of common English phrases being given unusual Welsh twists and I only wish I could think of one right now! :-)

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      myraggededge 7 years ago

      I heard a British DJ use 'I could care less' and always took it to mean, 'I *could* care less and I do (care less)'; a slightly snarkier version of the original. I love the way a lot of people say, or write, 'Walla!' when they mean 'Voila!', and, 'My interest was peaked,' when they mean 'piqued'.

      Great topic - do more! Blessed :-)

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      Carol Fisher 7 years ago from Warminster, Wiltshire, UK

      I love these misused phrases. I'm English and I thought "I couldn't care less" was the US version of "I couldn't care less" because I've only heard or read it from Americans. It puzzled me because, as you say, it's exactly the opposite of what I assumed somebody was trying to say.

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      loveunmeasured 7 years ago

      This was great - I really enjoyed the "doggy dog world" - keep 'em coming. :)

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      corinnemwestphal 7 years ago

      @PromptWriter: Well, who knows? Maybe you are talking about intense purposes? ;-)

    • corinnemwestphal profile image
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      corinnemwestphal 7 years ago

      @anonymous: Oh dear, I'll have to think about this one. Do I use this? Hmmm.

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      corinnemwestphal 7 years ago

      @RebeccaBingham: Yes, I know the "Maresy dotes" song and it was (more) years (than I'd like to admit) later than I learned the real words, too! :-)

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      anonymous 7 years ago

      One of my pet peeves is the use of the phrase " most importantly". If you want to say that someone acted in a way that made him/her look important or thought it made them look important, then this is the correct usage. But if you want to flag the fact that your next thought has greater significance than your previous statement, then the correct term is "more important" since the full clause is "what is more important". Importantly is an adverb which as we all remember from grade school modifies a verb.

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      RebeccaBingham 7 years ago

      Loved this -- funny and informative. There's an old song (very old) that I always thought was "Mairsy Dotes" -- "Mairsy dotes and dozy dotes and little lamsy divy". One day I heard it sung clearly. It's: "Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy."

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      Moe Wood 7 years ago from Eastern Ontario

      OMG that was sooo awesome. I actually found one there I've used, well slight different: "For All Intense Purposes". I sit corrected. :D

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      nelabai 7 years ago

      bob wire. hilarious :D thanks!

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      corinnemwestphal 7 years ago

      @Werkpaardje: Thanks, Workhorse, for your feedback. Interestingly enough, these are not mistakes that second language English speakers typically make. My husband (who's not a native English speaker) roared with laughter to know some of these mistakes native speakers make. Also, I'd say I've heard these made by both American- and English-English speakers :-).

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      Werkpaardje 7 years ago

      My mother tongue is Dutch and it wasn't until I read your "Top Ten Misused Phrases" lens, that I realized that Dutch-speakers experience the same. Funny thing is, most of the time we understand what is meant.

      I have to admit that I do not master the English or should I say American (I think it must be the latter - the way you write 'favorite') language very well to share, but I do hope you want to accept my thanks for letting me know about some of the misused phrases.

      5* it is.

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      kimmanleyort 7 years ago

      These are really funny. Thanks for the laugh.

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      Tagsforkids 7 years ago

      Good job, I had fun reading it. I just hope no one decides to use a Heineken remover on me!

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      GrowWear 7 years ago

      These are hilarious. Have only heard two of them misused -- "bob wire" and "could care less." Would probably snort out loud if I heard someone refer to the "Heineken Remover." :D

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      corinnemwestphal 7 years ago

      @Mihaela Vrban: Thanks. Makes me happy to pass on a few laughs. Thanks for linking me onward.

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      corinnemwestphal 7 years ago

      @EdTecher: It's so much cuter than the official version, isn't it? :-)

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      Mihaela Vrban 7 years ago from Croatia

      This is very funny lens! :) Thank you for putting it together. And off to show it to FB friends :)))

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      Heidi Reina 7 years ago from USA

      I hope doggy dog world sticks! Thanks for the smiles.