15 Sayings Americans Get Wrong (that ESL Students Can Get Right)
Learning a new language and getting all the nuances and colloquialisms down pat is tough. It’s even tougher when the native speakers around you are saying things incorrectly as much (or more) than you are!
Unfortunately, many Americans not only use words and sayings incorrectly on a regular basis, they have no idea that they’re doing so. Sometimes it’s because they were taught a misquoted version of what was once a common saying. Other times they might have misunderstood a phrase and intuited their own meaning so that it made sense to them.
English may be a constantly evolving language, but that doesn’t mean that you should follow along when people are making themselves look foolish by getting things wrong. Here are 15 of the most commonly confused words and phrases in America so that you can recognize them when you hear them and avoid using them incorrectly when writing:
- “You’ve got another thing coming.” This is a phrase that people often say in anger, as in “Oh, yeah? Well, then, you’ve got another thing coming!” It sounds vaguely threatening, but if you really think about the phrase, it doesn’t make much sense. What people should actually be saying is, “you’ve got another think coming,” but that makes even less sense unless you use the saying in its entirety: “If that’s what you think, then you’ve got another think coming.”
- “Statue of limitations.” This one is so well known that an episode of Seinfeld even dealt with it. The correct saying is statute of limitations, a legal term defining how long someone has until they can no longer be tried for a particular crime or violation. For example, the statute of limitations on battery in Missouri may be five years. If the state doesn’t bring charges within that time frame, they lose the legal ability to do so.
- “With all intensive purposes.” While, yes, it is technically possible to have purposes that are intensive (doctors and police detectives probably have these all the time), the correct phrase is “with all intents and purposes.”
- “Card shark.” While someone who is amazingly good at cards may seem like a vicious shark if you are playing against them and losing all of your hard-earned money, card shark is not the correct term. For the right phrase, you need to think about synonyms for “good” and “smart.” People who show those qualities when playing cards prove themselves to be sharp – therefore, they are card sharps.
- “Mute point.” What is a mute point anyway? A point that is silent? The phrase people are looking for is moot point. This is a tricky one because the correct word – “moot” – doesn’t really have any meaning beyond the one given to it in this phrase, essentially “an argument that is irrelevant.”
- “I could care less.” If you could care less, then you clearly still care a fair amount. Perhaps your comment would have hurt me more if you’d phrased it correctly and said, “I couldn’t care less.” Ouch.
- “Take it for granite.” Why are you taking it for granite? Does it look like granite? Does it feel like granite? Maybe you should test it out instead of just taking it for granite… or maybe what you meant was that you were taking it for granted. One involves not showing enough appreciation for something, while the other is a rock. Slight difference.
- “Extract revenge.” This is an interesting mistake because it immediately begs the question “from where?” What exactly holds revenge? Of course, the person really wants to “exact revenge,” by inflicting or imposing it on those who wronged him or her.
- “Nip it in the butt.” A dog might get away with this, but unfortunately a person doing this would probably be thought crazy, which is why we “nip it in the bud” instead. Huh? Think “bud” as in flowers and plants. To nip something in the bud means to stop a small problem before it can become a larger one.
- “Faithful day.” While it is certainly possible to have a faithful day, generally when people say this they are getting it confused with the common saying, “On that fateful day.” Why one over the other? Well, most of the time the phrase is used to describe historic events of great importance (i.e. full of fate) rather than events that relate to religion or faith.
- “Coming down the pipe.” The original saying, “coming down the pike,” referred to something approaching from the turnpike. However, most people today don’t have a whole lot of familiarity with that shortening of the word, and “pipe” conjures images of new data streaming through digital channels. “Coming down the pipe” isn’t correct, but this is one you might just get away with.
- “One in the same.” Where is one? In the same. Wait, what? Exactly – it doesn’t make any sense. And why? Because what you mean to say is “one and the same,” which is a way to say that something is exactly like something else.
- “I’d just assume.” This is a mistake based wholly on words sounding similar, which is unfortunate because their meanings are so different. “I’d just as soon” is a way of disagreeing politely. “Want to go to the movies?” “I’d just as soon stay in.” (e.g. “I’d rather stay in.) “I’d just assume stay in” means nothing and is confusing.
- “On tender hooks.” Hooks and tenderness are not two things I often put together, and you shouldn’t either. The actual phrase is “on tenterhooks,” which means that you are in a state of suspense.
- “Old-timer’s disease.” Technically this one makes a lot of sense, because it’s almost always older people who suffer from this malady, but when people say this, it is usually because they misunderstood when someone said Alzheimer’s disease.