5 common expressions you’re probably screwing up

© Fotolia/gosphotodesign

English is a colorful language. We have idioms and puns and delightful compound words like shitstorm, bushwhack and blockhead. You would think with this jackpot of expressions, we’d never have trouble saying precisely what we mean.

But of course, being imperfect humans, we’re masterful at taking a perfectly meaningful expression and turning into something that makes no sense at all. To be fair, I’m guilty of this too — and there’s nothing worse than a fellow editor friend calling you out on your improper usage of allude vs. elude.  How dreadful!

So, to spare you from being pilloried by a grammar snob, here are five expressions that are commonly misused. Be prepared for people to correct you for using the correct expression — but you can rest easy knowing that if it leads to a Google war to see who’s right, you’re sure to win some gloating points.

1.) Pass muster (NOT pass mustard)
So, you finished a project. You’ve worked hard on it.  But you’re nervous.  Will it make the grade?  Will it… pass muster?  As much as I’d love the expression to be “pass mustard” (since I love a nice pungent mustard), that just isn’t the case.

I know what you’re thinking … isn’t there an expression about mustard? Yes, there is — and that one’s about cutting the mustard. There are various theories on the origins of this expression, but it’s possible it evolved from people misusing the phrase “to pass muster.”

2.) Home in (NOT hone in)
I know this sounds crazy.  But this one is so commonly misused that the original expression sounds incorrect.  The verb “home” means to be guided towards a target or to move towards a goal (like homing pigeons). The verb “hone” means to sharpen or perfect.

Because “hone in” is used so frequently in North America (“home in” is more common elsewhere), some dictionaries even give it its own entry. And whether “hone in” is actually wrong is certainly up for debate, as illustrated in this New Yorker piece from last year.

3.) All intents and purposes (NOT all intensive purposes)
I’m pretty sure I misused this for years. But if you think about what the expression is actually trying to convey, it becomes pretty clear. We’re trying to say, “in every practical sense”: For all intents and purposes, panda bears are struggling to survive in the wild. 

But “intensive” means either “concentrated on a single area or short time” or “giving force or emphasis. To make the phrase correct, you’d have to put it in a different context:
Ex: She approached the last month of studying for the LSAT with intensive purpose.

4.) Nip it in the bud (NOT nip it in the butt)
Part of me prefers the misused version of this phrase.  But alas, if correct English is to prevail, the technical expression is “nip it in the bud.” You don’t want those pesky wildflowers to grow? Cut them off at the buds instead of waiting for them to flower.

Nipping someone in the butt is what a poorly trained dog would do. But if you’re trying to say that you want to put an end to something pernicious before it has a chance to grow too big, then “nip it in the bud” is your best friend.

5.) Whet your appetite (NOT wet your appetite)
The reason why people misuse this phrase so often is that we simply don’t whet things the way we used to. To whet something means to sharpen or stimulate it. Have dull knives or scissors? In the old days, you’d pull out your whetting stone to take care of them.

To wet your appetite means to pour liquid on it … or pee on it … which would presumably mean that you’ve dampened it. And that’s the opposite of what it means to whet your appetite — that is, to stimulate it so you’re ready to indulge.

Sure, there are plenty more of these phrases to go around. But these are the ones I find the most egregious (maybe because I’ve been guilty of misusing them myself). And hey, if you’re happy using your expressions however you damn well please, go right ahead — after all, I couldn’t care less.