10 English phrases that people get wrong

Published on 20 April 2019 at 15:40


Have you ever seen a phrase and wondered what it really means? Or have you ever looked at a phrase and wondered if it is correct?

It is quite possible that you get at least one of the following phrases wrong. Not to worry, as long as you are saying them, no one will notice. However, if you write them down wrongly, they will stick out like a sore thumb for those who do know better.

So why do people get these phrases wrong? Mostly it is due to the phrase having archaic roots. People don’t recognise one of the words and they try to make sense of it by using a more common word. Other examples are due to mishearing words and the rest are due to words that are similar in sound but mean something else entirely (homophones).

Here are a few examples from my collection: yes, I recently started noting them when I see them.


  1. Toe the line (tow the line)

Tow means to pull or drag and using this word perhaps brings a nautical flavour to the conversation, but it isn’t correct. There are different suggestions for the origin of ‘toe the line’, but the most likely is that it comes from a sporting term, toe the line at the start of a race, for example. Toe the line means to come to order, obey the rules, follow the party line. Example of usage:

These days, he suggested, you’ve either got to toe the line or get out.


  1. Home in (hone in)

‘Hone in’ has actually become more common in North America, but as hone means to sharpen and would not normally take the preposition ‘in’, home in is actually more logical. The use of home in originated from the time using homing pigeons was common and increased in use in the 20th century to refer to missiles homing in on a target. Example of usage:

She homed in on the weakest point of my argument.


  1. Bear with me (bare with me)

Bear and bare are homophones, they sound the same although they are spelled differently and they also have different meanings. Bear means to carry, to tolerate or to endure, bare means to uncover or reveal. Bear with me is usually said when someone is taking longer than expected to do something. Example of usage:

Bear with me while I find the correct file.

Other phrases containing bear that you may come across:

Bear in mind – keep in mind                                           Bear the cost – pay the cost

Bear weight – support                                                      Bear the pain – endure the pain

Bear fruit – have positive results                                    Bear a child – give birth

Other phrases containing bare that you may come across:

Bare minimum (necessities) – the least possible         Bare your soul – reveal your innermost secrets


  1. For all intents and purposes (for all intensive purposes)

This error is a case of mishearing and also an unusual usage of a word. The phrase ‘for all intents and purposes’ means: for all practical and reasonable purposes. Since intent in this context means purpose, the phrase is actually repetitive (tautologous). As an adjective, intent means concentrated, and intensive is derived from that meaning so the mistake is understandable. Example of usage:

For all intents and purposes, the project is complete. (There may be some small items to tidy up, but the project is complete and functional).


  1. Bated breath (baited breath)

This phrase also has an unusual word that is translated into something people recognise. Bated comes from abated or restrained. Baited means: used to tease or entice, lure, such as a baited hook in fishing. Example of usage:

The accused awaited his sentence with bated breath.

Correct use of baited: Don’t react, he is baiting you.


  1. Free rein (free reign)

Mistaking this phrase is due to a homophone and also a misunderstanding. It is quite easy to see why people think reign is correct, as a reigning monarch could be said to have the right to do whatever they wanted. Nevertheless, the phrase comes from the straps on a horse. Giving a horse free rein means loosening the reins and allowing the horse to go where it pleases without guidance or restriction. Example of usage:

His mother gave him free rein to choose his own books at the library.


  1. Gold standard (golden standard)

Gold standard is a historical term borrowed from economists; originally it was a monetary standard. The term started to be used to describe medical tests in the 1980s. ‘Golden’ is used as a description of ‘standard’ rather than referring to the standard of gold, or high value. Example of usage:

Because of their strong internal validity, traditional blinded trials are still the gold standard for efficacy assessment of medical interventions.


  1. Piqued my interest (peaked or peeked my interest)

This is another example of homonyms where one is seldom heard nowadays. Piqued means stimulated, provoked or aroused, peaked means at its highest point and peeked means stole at look at something. You could say that peaked my interest is the opposite of what you are trying to say. Example of usage:

He dropped a few hints to pique their interest.


  1. [Someone] and I, [Someone] and me ([someone] and myself)

People often have a hang up about whether they should use me or I in a sentence including someone else, as reaction to that, some put myself in, instead. Correctly used, myself is a reflexive pronoun (I wash myself) or an intensifier (I saw it myself). The ‘I or me’ decision is not too hard to get right. Here are two sentences to consider:

John and [?] went to the cinema. My mother took a photo of John and [?].

How do we know whether to use me or I in these sentences? In grammatical terms, the question mark replaces the subject in the first sentence and the object in the second. So we should use I and me respectively. However, there is a nice little trick that makes it easy to remember. If you divide the sentence into two you get:

John went to the cinema. I went to the cinema, too.

My mother took a photo of John. She took a photo of me, too.

That makes it completely clear that the sentences should read:

John and I went to the cinema.

My mother took a photo of John and me.


  1. Self-deprecating (self-depreciating)

This last example is a case of an unusual word being made into something a little more familiar. Self-deprecating means putting oneself down, undervaluing oneself or being over-modest. Depreciating means reducing in value, so it is understandable that people see a connection. ( I actually saw someone use self-defecating recently, but I will leave that one for the interested reader to check in the dictionary.) Example of usage:

Hugh Grant has made a career out of playing unsure, self-deprecatory characters.



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