Image: Rodrigo Muniz @ Flickr

Hi, my name is Kevin and I’m an English major.

Worse yet, I actually taught high school English for a few years before going to grad school and subsequently entering the business world. These things, coupled with my love for the language, have made me a bit of a purist when it comes to grammar and usage; I’m sure there’s some sort of 12 step program for folks like me.

Every day I cringe when I hear newscasters mangle the language – or see typos in the crawlers at the bottom of the screen on CNN and other networks, or in the local newspaper.

Additionally, and I know I’ll sound like a grammar snob but it’s true, some of my acquaintances routinely misuse common words and expressions. Particularly popular around here are “That’s a mute point,” “irregardless,” and a weird Nebraskan colloquialism, “That needs (fixed) (revised) (painted.)” What happened to the words “to be” in this sentence?? e.g., “That needs to be fixed,” etc. I don’t get it.

Yesterday a colleague, knowing I have an issue with poor grammar and usage, sent me a list of 41 common misuses of words and expressions compiled by the staff at JustSell.com. Here it is in its entirety… please, if you are making any of these mistakes, try to avoid them in the future:

Correct Incorrect
all intents and purposes all intensive purposes The phrase all intents and purposes is a shortening of the legal phrase “all intents, constructions and purposes.” The phrase denotes every practical sense.
a lot
alot “Alot” is not a word. The correct form “a lot” is two words, but it’s still a vague and rather homely phrase. So don’t use “a lot” a lot.
band together ban together A group of people will band together, or collectively gather; ban together does not mean to assemble as a group.
barbed wire barb wire Barbed wire is commonly referred to as barb wire in certain dialects; however, barbed wire is preferred in formal writing.
bide one’s time buy one’s time When you bide your time you are waiting patiently to do something. You can bide your time until you can buy more things, but time unfortunately is not for sale.
buck naked butt naked A buck originally referred to an overly–dressed, pretentious man and the phrase buck naked originated from this. Students might dream about showing up buck naked to class, not butt naked.
calm, cool and collected Calm, cool and collective Collective implies a group, so unless you’re with an unusually peaceful assembly of people, you are a calm, cool and collected individual.
canned goods can goods Canned is an adjective meaning preserved. Can goods be canned? Yes, they’re called canned goods.
case in point case and point A case in point is an example that illustrates the topic being discussed. The English language is full of misused phrases. Case in point
– people incorrectly say case and point.
champing at the bit chomping at the bit Champing at the bit implies an eagerness or anxiousness to do something and impatience at being held back; chomping at the bit is considered acceptable to say, by some.
contemporary modern To describe the present age or moment, “contemporary” is the best, most specific word. “Modern” can be confusing because in addition to its widely known uses, it also denotes a historical period (roughly 1800–1940).
converse conversate To converse is to hold a conversation or talk with someone. Conversate is a back formation of the noun conversation, and isn’t a word.
corroborating evidence collaborating evidence Corroborating evidence is testimony that’s in agreement with or strengthens prior testimony. Collaboration is when people work together.
cost him his job caused him his job Cost means to require the loss of something tangible (a direct object), like a job. Caused means to be the cause of or bring about a result (an action), like being fired. Excessive tardiness caused Ed’s boss to fire him; always being late cost him his job.
couldn’t care less could care less If you could care less, it means you still care. Couldn’t care less signifies an utter lack of interest.
cut and dried cut and dry Something that is cut and dried is arranged beforehand and not open to change. Cut and dry shows up in some dictionaries, but isn’t the dominant modern usage.
deep seated deep seeded Emotions you feel strongly are deeply seated. Seeded refers to distributing contestants in a tournament so that the best players or teams are not matched in early rounds. Tennis players are seeded; things you firmly believe are seated.
doesn’t jibe doesn’t jive Jibe means to be in agreement or accord with something; jive is slang for foolish or exaggerated talk. Jive talk doesn’t jibe with established office etiquette.
dog–eat–dog world doggy–dog world A dog–eat–dog world implies a world where people watch out for their own interests and fight only for themselves. Doggy dog is only correct when you’re talking about a rapper or a doggy day care.
duct tape duck tape Duct tape was originally called duck tape because it was waterproof and green. When the color was changed from green to silver to match the ductwork it was being used to fix, people started calling it duct tape, which is the primary phrase used today.
espresso expresso Espresso is a highly caffeinated coffee drink. The mispronunciation “expresso” makes your barista roll her eyes.
every day everyday “Every day” denotes each day. If you’re looking for a word that means usual or typical, “everyday” is the adjectival form. So if you go to the gym every day, your everyday activities include going to the gym.
fill the bill fit the bill Fill the bill originally described when small acts filled up a show’s bill for the night to supplement the main attraction, and has come to mean that something meets certain requirements or rounds something out nicely. Fit the bill does not mean to serve a particular purpose and shouldn’t be used.
give up the ghost give up the goat To give up the ghost means to die, or in the case of inanimate objects, to stop working; it’s a Biblical reference. People incorrectly say something has given up the goat when it refuses to work anymore.
home in on hone in on To home in on something is to target it, or set your sights on it and zero in. Hone refers to sharpening something, like skills. Scientists hone their research skills as they home in on cures for diseases.
mashed potatoes mash potatoes Mashed potatoes are what you serve with dinner. You mash potatoes until they become mashed potatoes.
mischievous mischievious Mischievous means causing mischief and inclined to annoy with playful tricks. Mischievous has only three syllables, not four like the more popular (and incorrect) mischievious.
nip it in the bud nip it in the butt When you nip a flower in the bud, you are stopping it from flowering. When you want to stop an action from fully developing, you nip it in the bud, not the butt.
prerogative perogative A prerogative is an exclusive right or privilege. It’s nobody’s prerogative to mispronounce it as ‘perogative.’
regardless irregardless Regardless means without regard to objections or in spite of something. The suffix “less” makes the word negative; adding the prefix “ir” turns the word into a double negative.
rife with ripe with Rife means widespread and abounding, and ripe means fully prepared and ready. You can be ripe, or ready, for action, but you are rife with enthusiasm, not ‘ripe with.’
set foot step foot Set foot is the traditional expression you should use when you are refusing to enter the same location twice.
sixth sense sick sense A sixth sense is an intuitive hunch or instinct, or the ability to perceive things beyond the five physical senses. This extrasensory perception could alert you before you fall ill, but it is not a sick sense.
skim milk skin milk Skim milk is milk from which the cream has been skimmed, or removed. There is no skin in milk.
spigot spicket A faucet is a spigot, not a spicket. Spicket is not a word.
statute of limitations statue of limitations A statute of limitations is an established rule limiting the amount of time that can elapse before legal action is taken. Statute should not be confused with statue, a carved figure.
supposedly supposably Supposedly means believed or reputed to be the case. There’s not an “a” or a “b” in this word.
take a different tack take a different tact Tack refers to a change in a boats direction – to take a different tack means to change course, or try another approach. Tact is the delicate perception of the right thing to do or say without offending.
tenterhooks tender hooks A tenterhook is a nail used to stretch canvas, and to be on tenterhooks is to be in a state of anxious suspense, or tense like a stretched canvas. Tender hooks doesn’t make much sense but sounds enough like tenter to be confusing.
tongue in cheek tongue and cheek To say something in a humorously ironic or kidding way is to say it with tongue in cheek, not tongue and cheek.
worse comes to worst worst comes to worst If worst comes to worst then the worst possible thing has happened. A more modern variation is if “worse comes to worst,” but it’s wrong to say if “worse comes to worse.”

If you’d like to see other “smart talk” features at JustSell, click on this link; many thanks to Catherine Baab-Muguira of JustSell.com for granting me permission to reproduce this list.

Using the language properly isn’t quite what it used to be, but it still matters. If you’re interviewing, chatting with the company president or making a presentation, it matters. By which I mean to say, it’s hardly “mute!”

Thanks for listening… I feel better already! ;-)

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28 Comments on 41 ways to sound like a bonehead

  1. Tage says:

    Thanks for this. I see myself saying, “could care less” too much. I’ll have to put a stop to that!

    [Reply]

  2. greenfee says:

    Interesting, ever since I’ve been online and come across “could care less” I assumed it was an Americanism.
    Glad you’ve got tenterhooks in there because that irks me too.
    I’ve a feeling you’re going to feel like King Canute, though, with your campaign!

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  3. Paul Z says:

    I hate to point this out, but you have a typo in your definition of Duct Tape (“sliver” instead of “silver”).

    You could also add to the list “Ice Tea” (instead of the correct “Iced Tea”). Grrr.

    [Reply]

  4. Kevin says:

    @Paul: Thanks; I grabbed the chart from JustSell.com and should have proofed it more carefully – my bad. It’s been corrected. As for “ice tea,” the list goes on and on… we have a few folks at work who substitute “mute” for “moot.” Aaarrrggghhh! Thanks for the comment – and correction! Kevin

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  5. Dee says:

    Nice chart & Thanks. Grammar is VERY important, especially in light of the way that texting and so forth has completely butchered the use of language. I get it and there are appropriate times for those things, but one must still know what is proper and correct! I was ‘arguing’ with an annoying person I work with over ‘jibe’ vs. ‘jive’ (of course I was right re. jibe) and had to prove my point to them. Do not get me started on ‘moot’: I actually saw ‘mute’ used incorrectly in a National newspaper…that’s right, their spell/grammar check did not catch it and neither did the editor…but the worst is that the writer actually used the wrong word! Can’t stand ‘irregardless’ and I have a teacher friend who uses it all the time (has been politely pointed out out to him but he insists on using it.)

    [Reply]

    Kevin Reply:

    Dee, thanks – your comment made me smile. I hear “mute” for “moot” all the time and it drives me crazy. aaarrrggghhhh! I fear we’re fighting a losing battle, though. Thanks again.

    [Reply]

  6. Cornelius says:

    Excellent info, and I agree with nearly all but the last. Worst can’t come to worst; it is already there. The correct expression is “If worse comes to worst,” meaning “If this situation, which is already pretty danged bad, gets to be absolutely as bad as it can possibly get.”

    Here’s an example. You and a friend are out in the middle of a lake in a boat, and you discover the boat is leaking. You say to your friend “Well, if worse comes to worst, I suppose we could swim to shore.”

    “Worse” in this case, is that the boat is leaking. This is certainly worse than a boat that is not leaking, but is not, at this point, the worst thing that could happen. The “worst” thing would be that the boat leaked so much that it sank. Well, regarding the boat, at least. :) Your comment to your friend presupposes you’d both be capable of swimming to shore.

    As to the “nearly” part, your explanation of “buck naked” seems to be the PC version, and doesn’t even make sense, though I’m sure it didn’t originate with you. However, why would a popinjay be used in an expression regarding the lack of clothing? “Buck” in this instance refers to the white man’s reference to strapping males of “inferior” races, meaning people who were darker of complexion, who didn’t claim their territory with flags, and who didn’t actually discover things like the Grand Canyon because they merely lived there, and were not proper explorers. They also didn’t insist on dressing formally in warmer climates, where, from a purely practical, and therefore inferior viewpoint, things like ties, waistcoats and the like were considered unnecessary. An “Indian buck” or an African one, went about the world in what was comfortable, rather than what was “proper,” therefore the term “buck naked.”

    Thanks, however, for posting this. It’s a great list, and covers nearly all of the things that commonly annoy me regarding misused phrases.

    [Reply]

    Kevin Reply:

    Cornelius – Thanks. If you read all the comments you’ll note that the list itself had a couple of typos – this was another. I corrected it.

    As for buck naked, I’m not sure of the origins of the expression; the one offered here (I reproduced this from sell.com, with their permission) seems iffy at best. In any event, it’s “buck,” not “butt.”

    Thanks for commenting!

    [Reply]

  7. Cornelius says:

    Hey, Kevin,

    Regarding “buck-naked,” I suppose we could borrow a razor from Ockham, and shave it all down to the fact that the males of at least several species are called “bucks,” (even some rodents, as I recall) and that they habitually go about naked. (Go figure.)

    Unfortunately, when humans are involved, and regarding language, “Occam’s Razor” rarely applies. People just aren’t logical. :)

    Um,you mean sell.com, like the eBay wannabe site? I wasn’t aware they were authorities on such things. (And I think it speaks volumes that this site’s spell-checker doesn’t have a problem with “wannabe.”) :)

    But, in any event, you are correct; it is “buck,” and not “butt.”

    As an aside, the same people who say “butt naked” often also have in their grammatical arsenals words like “aksed.” As in, “I aksed him to drive me to the store.” I once dated a girl who used this “word.” The emphasis here is on “once.”

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  8. Cornelius says:

    I just read your edit of “worse comes to worst.” I still don’t quite agree, but I think you are getting closer. :)

    [Reply]

  9. Kerry says:

    Interesting! Your list came up as I searched for the difference between “band together” and “ban together” – the latter usage I encountered on the Fox News website. Ooops! :)

    [Reply]

  10. Kelli says:

    Thanks for this list! I, too, am a grammar snob, coming from a long line of teachers, and having been in the clerical field for my entire career. Sadly, a new one that I just saw today in the Dallas Business Journal (yes, another news outlet!) was the use of “skiddish” rather than “skittish.” ARGH.

    [Reply]

  11. Gary Williams says:

    I wonder how you feel about “one of the only”, my particular pet peeve, although it seems to be being used by an increasing number of educated native speakers.

    There are fifty men in the room. John is one of the fifty
    There are three men in the room. John is one of the three.
    There are a few men in the room. John is one of the few.
    There are only three men in the room. John is one of the three.
    There are only a few men in the room. John is one of the ____.

    Presumably we learn language in part by pattern recognition. Apparently it’s not working.

    [Reply]

  12. Ellie Calo says:

    There were some Facebook threads amongst my friends on this topic today, so I posted this site as my status. Some people encountered “Conversate” and “Orientated.” Personally, I see red when I hear dialogue on prime time television shows that includes the use of “MischEEvious.” Grrrrrr…..

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  13. Till says:

    Nice write up, Kevin. Thanks. I am not a native speaker but knew all the expressions in their correct form. That is all but one. Tenterhooks I had never heard of. I love it. Will use that among art historians. Very fitting. Is it a well-known expression? I had really never heard it before.

    [Reply]

  14. tommy says:

    “I could care less” is meant to be ironic. both are acceptable, and no one will mistake your meaning.

    [Reply]

    Kevin Reply:

    I’ve listened to people say “I could care less” for decades, and am willing to bet that a very high percentage of them are engaging in no irony whatsoever. It’s simply wrong.

    [Reply]

  15. Gary Williams says:

    Good to see some activity here.

    I’m interested in the pattern that includes “skim milk”. Why “skim” and not “skimmed”? Well, for the same reason it’s “ice cream” and not “iced cream”, I suppose. But, then, why is it “iced” tea? (“Ice tea”, although seen, is clearly illiterate.) And can what I’ve seen at groceries, “can peas”, fail to activate the gag reflex. Yet it’s universally “box lunch”. So is there a pattern as to when a passive participle loses its ending and becomes an attributive noun? Or even, as in the first example, an “attributive verb”?

    [Reply]

  16. tommy says:

    “it’s simply wrong” is not a rebuttal. the user of “i could care less” does not have to consciously engage in irony–the speaker and listener both know what is meant, even if the phrase’s sarcastic origins (an american spin on a british saying) are unknown to them.

    [Reply]

    Kevin Reply:

    Tommy,

    Today someone copied me on an email in which he wrote (changing things slightly here), “Many of the managers have inquiry about the program.” Now, I know what he meant to write (“inquired” as opposed to “inquiry”), so I understood his meaning – but that doesn’t make his statement correct. Using your logic, his statement is perfectly acceptable. After all, the writer and reader both knew what was meant, right??

    Sloppiness such as saying “I could care less” rather than “I couldn’t care less” is just another example of the degradation of the language. One needn’t look any further than the national news or prime time shows to hear people regularly say things like, “He delivered the news to Joe and I.” It’s wrong. It sounds wrong. The fact that I know what the speaker means does not make it acceptable, or right.

    The nuance of how “I could care less” came to be is not understood by (I would wager) 99.9% of the people who say it – it’s become accepted simply as the result of common usage. That doesn’t make it right.

    I suppose it’s a small point – like “irregardless” now shows up in the dictionary – but I still cringe when people say it.

    In any event, thanks for your comments!

    [Reply]

  17. tommy says:

    Inquiry, as used above, is bad syntax. That’s a separate issue. “Could care less” is a slang expression. It’s not bad grammar, syntax, or word usage. You just want the expression to make internal sense literally, which is fine. But that still doesn’t make it wrong, which is the purported aim of this thread.

    [Reply]

    Kerry Reply:

    I think you’re mistaking idioms and slang expressions with common grammatical errors.

    “Couldn’t care less” or, with your argument “could care less”, alludes that the speaker feels the least concern possible for the situation. The statement is actual and the words reference literal meaning. The speaker means each word’s definition.

    Idioms and slang are bound phrases that are referential in nature and are comprised of words that otherwise would make no sense without an attached underlying understanding. Slang and idioms use words that otherwise would never be part of the conversation. Here’s an example:

    Phrase: couldn’t care LESS. (Care represents concern, similar by definition.)

    Idiom/slang: couldn’t give a HOOT. (Is the speaker an owl? No. Hooting literally means voicing outrage but even then it doesn’t convey a literal translation. “I have no concern” does not also mean “I will not holler”.)

    So based on this logic, “could care less” is simply a gramatically incorrect phrase.

    [Reply]

  18. Gary Williams says:

    I wonder whether the usage of “could care less” is driven more by stress patterns than by literal vs. ironic intent. In “I couldn’t care less” the strongest stress as well as the highest pitch is on “couldn’t”, on the negation of what follows. In “I could care less”, “could” gets the weakest stress and lowest pitch, while “care less” are both stressed, “care” slightly more strongly. Maybe those who say “I could care less” are putting the emphasis on the emotion they feel, (It _really_ doesn’t matter!) than on the denial of any emotion.

    Not that this is a conscious decision, of course.

    But if anyone wanted to make “I could care less” a literal statement, he would probably stress “could”.

    [Reply]

  19. Diana O. says:

    “Using the language properly isn’t quite WAS it used to be, but it still matters.” I think you mean WHAT?

    [Reply]

    Kevin Reply:

    Thanks for the catch.

    [Reply]

  20. tammie says:

    my personal peeves are when people misuse affect/effect
    Subconscious/unconscious
    I am currently and temporarily in the deep south where people WARSH AND WRENCH their clothes. I think that I might have even chipped a tooth hearing that while I was standing in a line.NOW I realize it is now in the dictionary, but in middle school my history teacher stood up on the first day of class and stated her name and proceeded to point on the chalk board,there is no such word as hung. I am glad to see others out there where simple misuse of a word can cause one to clinch their jaw in agony.
    One time a personality conflict gave cause for my son’s English teacher to send home a note concerning a paper my son had written. Her note had so many blaring errors I felt compelled to CORRECT HER misuse of words, and attach proof that my child’s paper was actually correct. I went on further to very sternly write to her that it was a very sad day when the student knew more than the teacher and I didn’t expect any more problems with my son in her class. Auto correct and lack of sleep may lead you to find errors with my addition, but keep up the campaign for proper use of language.

    [Reply]

  21. Daniel W says:

    “These things, coupled with my love for the language, has made me a bit of a purist when it comes to grammar and usage”

    The list you’ve compiled here is brilliant, but watch your subject-verb agreements; you’ve essentially written, “these things has made me [a purist]”. The subject is plural, so these things HAVE made you a purist, not has.

    [Reply]

    Kevin Reply:

    Wow. How embarrassing. Fixed.

    [Reply]

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