The English language is an odd and funny thing. I should know. I studied English as my major and taught the subject to high school students. My daughters avoided giving me their schoolwork to review because they were afraid I’d throw my grammar geekiness all over their papers. Somehow, I’d always seem to find a handful of commonly misused phrases or words in their papers. And, when I pointed them out, they didn’t appreciate the quirkiness of our native language.
And, honestly, I get it.
First, there are so many confusing rules. Many words sound the same but have different spellings and definitions (I’m looking at you, “their,” “they’re” and “there.”) Trying to remember “I before E except after C” is hard enough, but when there are about a billion exceptions to the rule, then why even bother having it?
Here’s another challenge with English: like any other spoken language, words can be added to our vocabulary based on how we use them — even if it’s part of a commonly misused phrase.
Last year, the word “irregardless” was added to the Mirriam-Webster dictionary, despite it technically being an improper term. It’s listed as a nonstandard word. This means the authors of the dictionary entered the word into the official book because people use it so often, it’s become adopted into our daily word usage.
However, there are still plenty of words and phrases many of us toss into our conversations that have yet to be embraced by the gatekeepers of the English language. Here’s a list of 10 commonly misused phrases you may be guilty of abusing. No judgment, of course! Consider this a quick brush-up of those English lessons that were forgotten long ago.
1. “Better Then”
When many people are talking about their preference for one thing over another, they might incorrectly say one is “better then” the other. The correct way to say it would be that one is “better than” the other. They sound similar but here’s a tip to help you remember which one is right: “Then” refers to time, while “Than” is used to compare two or more things. Any time you’re comparing one thing to another, you should use “better than.”
2. “I Could Care Less”
Getting this one right is important because there’s a big different between saying “I could care less” and “I couldn’t care less.”
Most of the time, people want to use this phrase to say they don’t care at all about something. So, in that case, you’d need to say ,”I couldn’t care less,” because it literally means your level of care about this subject is as low as it can possibly get. On the other hand, if you incorrectly say, “I could care less” in that situation, you are saying that you in fact do care about this subject at least a little.
3. “I Need To Lay Down”
I’ll admit it, this one is tricky even for me. When it comes time for bed, I find myself slipping by using “lay down” instead of the correct “lie down.” So, what’s the difference between these oft-confused words?
“Lay” is a verb that means “to place or set something down” and involves an object: a book, a plate, or whatever. “Lie,” in this situation, is a verb that means “to recline or get into a horizontal position.” That’s usually what we mean when we say we’re going to relax flat in the bed or somewhere else.
4. “Statue Of Limitations”
This one isn’t exactly an everyday phrase but knowing the correct way to say it can save you from sounding stupid if you ever need to use it. A “statute” of limitations is a legal term dealing with a period of time in which a civil or criminal violation can be prosecuted. It’s commonly used when talking about a crime that happened a long time ago and may not be punishable by law anymore.
As for the incorrect “statue of limitations,” there really is no such thing unless a sculptor decided to mold a work of art that physically depicted someone’s limitations.
5. “Nip It In The Butt”
If you want to put an end to something before it gets out of control, you nip it in the “bud” — not the “butt.” It’s an old term that connects to nature and how frost can kill flowers before they bloom (when they are still buds). Meanwhile, nipping something in the “butt” conjures an unpleasant mental image of a dog biting a mail carrier.
6. “I’m Doing Good”
Ugh. The age-old battle of “good” vs. “well.” Both words mean well (see what I did there?), but they cause a lot of headaches. “Good” is an adjective, which describes someone or something overall (“He’s a good student.”), while “well” is an adverb, which describes how someone or something is performing in a specific situation (“He’s doing well in class.”).
We often answer the question, “How are you?” by saying, “I’m doing good!” While it’s a polite answer, it’s also not correct to say, even if you are having a good day. “I’m doing well” is the correct way to answer the question. Here’s an easy way to remember which word to use in this situation: Superman does good; you’re doing well.
7. “She Did A Complete 360”
When you want to say someone has made a drastic change in her life, you might be tempted to say, “She did a complete 360,” but this is completely incorrect. Why? Because if you say someone has made a 360-degree change, then no change has actually happened. Turning 360 degrees means you do a complete circle and wind up facing the same direction you were before. What you want to say is, “She did a complete 180.”
A 180-degree move means turning around and facing the exact opposite direction you were before — and that is the message you usually want to get across when talking about transformations.
8. “Tongue And Cheek”
When someone is saying something sarcastically, they are speaking “tongue-in-cheek,” not “tongue and cheek,” as many people incorrectly say. Some experts believe this common term was first used in the 18th and 19th centuries to show skepticism. If you say you’re speaking “tongue and cheek,” people will probably know what you meant, but they might also silently judge your word choice!
9. “Biting My Time”
Are you sitting around, scrolling on your phone, just waiting for an appointment or a meeting to start? Then you are “biding your time.” It may sound like you’re “biting your time” but that would be a mistake to say. To bide means to stay or remain. So, biding time means holding on until it’s time to act. You can’t actually bite time, even if you chew on your watch as you’re biding your time.
10. “Hunger Pains”
It’s dinner time. You haven’t had lunch and you’re hearing your tummy rumble like Winnie the Pooh. Many people say they are having “hunger pains” when that happens. While your stomach may hurt when it groans and grumbles, the actual term for this feeling is “hunger pangs.” “Pang” is an older version of the word “pain.”
Despite this common phrase being technically incorrect right now, it looks like the term “hunger pains” may be on its way to being accepted into the English language because, in our research, we found sources that used the terms interchangeably. EvenMirriam-Webster calls “pangs” antiquated and cites numerous publications where “hunger pains” is used.
The English language is a subject that’s always changing, constantly contradicting itself and finding ways to confound even fluent speakers.
But it’s never boring!