Do These Commonly Confused Expressions Pique Your Interest?

Tuesday, January 31 4 min read

Does your knowledge of these common phrases jibe with their correct usage? If you think you know them all, you’ve got another think coming. It’s time to nip these grammatical blunders in the bud.

“Another thing coming” vs. “Another think coming”

Correct: Both

To the surprise of many American English speakers, “Another think coming” is the original usage of this idiom. The phrase came into American English from British English in the mid-19th century with the usage, “If you think you’re correct, you’ve got another think coming.” “Another thing coming” is the newer version of the phrase; it was probably a simple misinterpretation of the original. Both phrases mean the same thing and are used to imply that a person is wrong.

“Beck and call” vs. “Beckon call”

Correct: “Beck and call”

To be at someone’s “ beck and call ” is to always be ready to do whatever they ask. “Beck” has been around since the 14th century , though it is rarely used alone today. It’s a shortened version of “beckon” (to summon or signal with a gesture), so technically, the unabridged version of this phrase should be, “beckon and call.” The common, and incorrect phrase, “beckon call” is just a mishearing of “beck and call.”

“Champing at the bit” vs. “Chomping at the bit”

Correct: Both

According to Merriam-Webster , both versions of this cliché are correct. They have the same meaning, “waiting impatiently,” as in, “The team was champing at the bit to get started on the new project.” “Champing” is in the older version of the phrase, so some might insist that it is superior, but its alternative is so popular in modern language that both are okay to use. In some dictionaries, “chomp” is listed as a synonym of “champ,” further supporting the acceptance of both phrases. Both idioms refer to a horse clamping down on its bit with its teeth in a sense of urgency or impatience. The original phrase (using “champ”) was coined in 1810 by Charles Lucas in, “Joseph: A Religious Poem.”

“Could care less” vs. “Couldn’t care less”

Correct: Both

Technically, “couldn’t care less,” is the original version, but “could care less” is a variant of that, and according to lexicographers , both are acceptable. These flippant remarks are often used to show disregard for the situation, as in, “She ignored my call but I couldn’t care less.” The alteration, “could care less,” is sometimes criticized by grammar sticklers because logically, it does suggest that one cares at least a little bit, but because of its popularity and widespread usage, it’s become accepted as another way to say “I don’t care.”

“For all intents and purposes” vs. “For all intensive purposes”

Correct: “For all intents and purposes”

“For all intensive purposes” is an eggcorn — a word or phrase that results from a mishearing or misinterpretation, but the meaning is not changed. It warps the correct phrase, “for all intents and purposes,” meaning “in all important aspects.” This phrase first appeared in a 1546 Act of Parliament in England as the phrase, “to all intents, constructions, and purposes,” referring to King Henry VIII’s absolute power when interpreting laws. The English began using a shortened version, “to all intents and purposes,” thereafter — and it remains popular in the language. In American English, “ for all intents and purposes” (rather than “to”) is more widely used.

“Jibe with” vs. “Jive with”

Correct: “Jibe with”

“The upbeat music didn’t jibe with the solemn event.” To suggest that something is (or isn’t) in agreement with something else, use the word “jibe,” not “jive.” The term “jibe" (sometimes spelled “gibe,” an older variation) is synonymous with “accord, agree, or coincide.” People began confusing “jibe” and “jive” in the 1920s when “ jive ” entered English as “foolish or deceptive talk.” This grammatical gaffe only got worse in the 1940s when the dance version of the jive became extremely popular around America.

“Nip it in the bud” vs. “Nip it in the butt”

Correct: “Nip it in the bud”

This popular idiom is another eggcorn ; people often incorrectly replace “bud” with “butt.” The correct usage is to “nip it in the bud,” that is, to stop something early (or before it starts) by metaphorically pinching off the “bud” (of a leaf or flower). This idiom came from an earlier phrase , “nip in the bloom,” in 1595 by Henry Chettle in the lines, “Extinguish these fond loues with minds labour, and nip thy affections in the bloome, that they may neuer bee of power to budde.” The replacement of “bloom” with “bud” appeared in the early 17th century and quickly caught on, earning it a permanent spot in the English lexicon.

“Peak your interest” vs. “Pique your interest”

Correct: “Pique your interest”

It’s easy to see where this phrase went awry: “Peak” is a homonym of “pique” (a word that sounds the same but has a different meaning).  If something “ piques your interest ,” it has caught your attention, or made you curious. “Pique” is a French loanword, originally meaning “to prick,” but it entered English in the 16th century to mean a “slight offense taken.” Its meaning transformed into “excitement or arousal” in the coming centuries, resulting in the popular saying still used today.

“Scotch free” vs. “Scot-free”

Correct: “Scot-free”

This phrase has nothing to do with Scottish people, whiskey, or Scotch tape. “Scotch free” is commonly mistaken for the correct phrase, “ scot-free ,” meaning that someone got away with something free from obligation, penalty, harm, or charge. It came from the Old English term “ scotfrēo ” meaning “exempt from royal tax,” a combination of the terms “scot” (“royal tax”) and “freo” (“free”), stemming from the Old Norse word skot, meaning “contribution.”

“Toe the line” vs. “Tow the line”

Correct: “Toe the line”

To “tow the line” makes sense — ropes or cables used on ships are called tow lines, but the correct usage for the idiom is actually “toe.” This phrase emerged in the 19th century at track races when “toeing the line” meant positioning your toes by the starting line. Eventually, it began popping up figuratively, and today, the idiomatic phrase means to follow or obey rules and orders without causing any trouble.

Featured image credit: fizkes / iStock

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