Commonly Misquoted Phrases and Sayings aka Eggcorns

There can be fewer more embarassing things as a writer, than to realise that something you have written and published contains a glaring error. It’s especially embarassing when it’s a simple mistake or if it makes you look stupid. One of the greatest pitfalls, and sources and of potential embarassment, is when you get a figure of speech wrong, either through ignorance or just through a plain old typo.

How many times have you seen an e-mail, or heard someone speak, and realised that what they’ve said doesn’t look or sound just quite right. In everyday speech we use metaphors, euphemisms and sayings that can be misheard or misconstrued by anyone who isn’t familiar with them already. In writing, the situation is just the same; only with a more embarassing effect for the writer.

When you’re writing or editing your work, think of phrases or sayings that you may have used. Think whether you’ve used them or expressed them correctly. While the meaning or sound of the expression may be fine in your head, has it translated onto paper correctly?

To illustrate the point, think about these phrases:

  • batting down the hatches v batten down the hatches
  • damp squid v damp squib
  • mute point v moot point
  • adverse to v averse to
  • auger well v augur well
  • alterior motive v ulterior motive
  • barred wire v barbed wire
  • butt naked v buck naked
  • on tenderhooks v on tenterhooks
  • one foul swoop v one fell swoop
  • short shift v short shrift

In each case the first one shown is incorrect, the second one is the real phrase. Would you have known this? The reason that many people have difficulty with them is because most of them are homophonic, that is, they sound the same or very similar.

Most people will not be able to tell you the origin of some of these well-used phrases but most will readily understand what you are trying to convey. The trick is not to avoid them, they can add to your writing after all, but to be sure of their correct usage and form before you use them. If you are really unsure and cannot find an authoritative source to check their meaning and form, then avoid using them.

Once you start looking on the web, there are actually lots of resources to help you with what seems like an obscure problem. The word ‘eggcorn’ appears to have been copined to describe these mistakes. Have a look at The Eggcorns Database and Daily Writing Tips for even more examples of this common problem.

On a related subject, some of these confusing phrases can be derived from foreign words or expressions. Try reading about using foreign words and accents in your writing.

Find out more about editing and revising your work in general.

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