Posted by: Jack Henry | October 19, 2017

Editor’s Corner: 12 Idioms You Might Be Getting Wrong

Daily Writing Tips recently sent out a list of 12 idioms that people often get wrong because of homonyms, which are words that sound the same but are spelled differently and have different meanings (for example, toe and tow). We’ve covered a couple of incorrectly used idioms in other posts, but most of the ones on this list are new and definitely worth looking at.

If you use one of these idioms incorrectly while speaking, no one will know since the words sound the same. But you need to be careful when you use an idiom in your writing. If you use the wrong homonym, it will be obvious to people in the know. So, to keep us all from embarrassing ourselves, here are 12 idioms that people commonly get wrong. Don’t be one of commoners. You’re better than that.

Incorrect: baited breath
Correct: bated breath

This phrase refers to abating, or stopping, breathing, and the related adjective bated is intended.

Incorrect: eek out
Correct: eke out

Eke originally meant “increase”; the verb is now obsolete except in the phrase pertaining to achieving after exerting effort; it has nothing to do with a squeal of surprise one might make when one is startled.

Incorrect: just desserts
Correct: just deserts

This idiom refers not to a sweet dish served after a main course but to what one justly deserves. Deserts is a noun, obsolete except in this usage, which refers to just that.

Incorrect: making due
Correct: making do

The expression pertaining to managing with available resources is “making do.”

Incorrect: marshal law
Correct: martial law

A marshal is a type of law-enforcement official, and to marshal is to order or organize, so this error is understandable, but the phrase refers to martial law, a state in which military forces maintain order under martial, or warlike, conditions.

Incorrect: peak (one’s) interest
Correct: pique (one’s) interest

In the sense of arousing interest, the correct verb is pique.

Incorrect: reign in
Correct: rein in

This phrase refers to managing someone or something as if one were using reins on a horse to control its movement, hence “rein in.”

Incorrect: sewing doubts
Correct: sowing doubts

This phrase refers to planting doubts as if they were seeds—thus, “sowing doubts.”

Incorrect: slight of hand
Correct: sleight of hand

This idiom is sometimes misunderstood to refer to deceptive movement so slight as to be undetectable, but the key word is sleight, meaning “dexterity.”

Incorrect: to the manner born
Correct: to the manor born

It is natural to assume that this phrase alludes to being born in a certain manner—specifically, “in an affluent environment”—but “to the manor
born” pertains to those born in a manor, as opposed to a more humble dwelling.

Incorrect: tow the line
Correct: toe the line

The phrase alluding to placing one’s feet right on a line and not stepping over it is “toe the line.”

Incorrect: wet your appetite
Correct: whet your appetite

This idiom refers to sharpening one’s desire for something, not moistening it. Whet means “sharpen by rubbing against,” as with a whetstone against a knife, and the correct phrase is “whet your appetite.”

Donna Bradley Burcher | Senior Technical Editor | Symitar®

8985 Balboa Ave. | San Diego, CA 92123 | Ph. 619.278.0432 | Extension: 765432

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