Little Book of Confusables

19 common expressions you’re getting wrong… plus a classic Friends moment

I’ll admit it. I have a weird sense of humour.

Most comedians leave me cold. If critics describe a film as “hilarious” I’m almost guaranteed not to like it.

But one thing that does make me chuckle is misuse of language.

Some people are outraged by ‘shocking falling standards’ or the ‘English language going to hell’, much like a Daily Mail headline. Not me. I prefer to be amused. It makes life more fun.

I read something the other day that used the expression ‘white as a sheep’. Brilliant! But wrong. (The expression is ‘white as a sheet’. I think I prefer sheep. My sheets are purple.)

It got me thinking about the phrases people often misuse – and why it happens. This article contains 19 of my favourite stupid mistakes that even smart people make… and a cheeky language lesson while we’re at it.

Mondegreens, malapropisms and eggcorns

You what now?

Don’t be misled by the title of this post: these are all real names for common lexical errors.

A mondegreen* is a misheard version of a song lyric, like this: “It doesn’t make a difference if we’re naked or not” from Bon Jovi’s Livin’ On A Prayer.

(Of course, the lyric is actually, “It doesn’t make a difference if we make it or not” – but the alternative sounds a lot more fun.)

A malapropism** is when a similar-sounding wrong word is used instead of the right word, with nonsensical and often funny results. Finally, an eggcorn*** is a misunderstanding or mishearing of a phrase or word, often with broadly the same meaning.

(There are also homonyms, where words sound the same, like ‘there’, ‘their’ and ‘they’re’ but these are more likely to trip you up when you’re writing, not speaking.)

Lesson over. Without further a dew (sorry), here are 19 phrases that are commonly confused in British English.

Nip it in the bud NOT nip it in the butt

If you nip something in the bud, you’re cutting it off before it has a chance to develop, or grow. You might want to watch out for crabs nipping you in the butt if you’re hanging out at the beach… otherwise, it’s wrong.

“Your dog’s developing bad habits. You might want to nip that in the bud.”

On tenterhooks NOT on tender hooks

This phrase, meaning worried anticipation, comes from the word ‘tenter’ which was a frame on which cloth was stretched to prevent shrinking. The tenterhook kept the cloth tense and tight – hence the expression. A tender hook isn’t a thing.

“I’m on tenterhooks waiting for my exam results!”                               

To all intents and purposes NOT to all intensive purposes

‘To all intents and purposes’ is defined as meaning ‘in all important respects’ or ‘virtually’. The phrase dates back to 16th century law, where it started life as, ‘to all intents, constructions, and purposes’. It’s easy to see how this is misheard as ‘intensive’, but it’s still wrong.

“The house was, to all intents and purposes, abandoned.”

I couldn’t care less NOT I could care less

“I could care less” means you do, at least, care a little. “I couldn’t care less” means you don’t. Simple.

“I couldn’t care less what my ex thinks!”

180-degree turn NOT 360-degree turn

I do words. I don’t do maths. But I do know that if you start at point A and do a 360-degree turn, you’re still at point A.

When you want to express the fact that you started off thinking one thing but now think the complete opposite – in other words, you did a complete U-turn – that’s a 180-degree turn.

“I didn’t like the new album at first but I’ve done a complete 180 and now love it.”

Dog-eat-dog world NOT doggy dog world

The phrase ‘dog-eat-dog’ means brutal, ruthless and competitive. Apart from a track by Snoop Dogg, doggy dog world is not a thing. I just wish it was.

“It’s a dog eat dog world out there, so you’d better up your game.”

Chest of drawers NOT Chester drawers

That unit in your bedroom where you keep your socks is a chest of drawers. Unless you bought the drawers from Chester, in which case, I won’t argue with you.

“Please put your clothes away in your chest of drawers.”

Moot point NOT mute point

‘Moot’ means arguable, or subject to debate. As well as thinking it’s ‘mute’, another common mistake is to think it means that something isn’t up for debate.

Someone once told me they thought it was ‘a mute point’ because it meant ‘stop talking nonsense’. Makes perfect sense – particularly if you don’t know what ‘moot’ means.

Friends fans will remember the scene where Joey called it a ‘moo point’. “It’s like a cow’s opinion. It doesn’t matter. It’s moo.” Watch it here.

“Whether or not it should be enforced by law is a moot point.”

While we’re on the subject of comedy mishears, this clip from The IT Crowd – which covers damp squib/damp squid and pedestal/peddle stool is equally brilliant… Watch it here.

11 more commonly confused phrases  

  • Old wives’ tale NOT old wise tale
  • Off your own bat NOT off your own back
  • Go-getter NOT goal-getter
  • Scapegoat NOT escape goat
  • Alzheimer’s Disease NOT old timers’ disease
  • Chickenpox NOT chicken spots
  • Nerve-wracking NOT nerve-wrecking
  • Eton mess NOT eaten mess
  • Card sharp NOT card shark
  • Pass muster NOT pass mustard
  • …and, of course, white as a sheet NOT white as a sheep

My favourites are doggy-dog world and escape goat. What’s your favourite commonly confused expression? Have I covered it here?

*The word mondegreen comes from a 1954 article in Harper’s Magazine in which Sylvia Wright mentioned misinterpreting the words of a 17th century Scottish ballad, “‘They have slain the Earl of Moray and laid him on the green’ as ‘They have slain the Earl of Moray and Lady Mondegreen.’

** The word malapropism comes Mrs Malaprop, a character in Sheridan’s 1775 play, The Rivals

***The most recent of the three terms, eggcorn refers to a misinterpretation of the word acorn. Its first recorded use was earlier this century.

Coming soon: The Little Book of Confusables

Wouldn’t you love a handy guide to those tricksy spellings that trip you up and make you look bad? Words like PRACTICE and PRACTISE, AFFECT and EFFECT, or IMPLY and INFER.

The Little Book of Confusables shares simple, memorable spelling tips and examples for more than 500 of the words you find most confusing. Supercharge your vocabulary and avoid embarrassing mistakes! Sign up to my monthly newsletter for updates.