Your Friendly Neighborhood Grammar Geek, Volume III
We grammar geeks often enjoy laughing up our sleeves at folks who make silly usage mistakes. It’s fun for us (for a moment) but it doesn’t do anyone any real good. The grammar geeks just reinforce the stereotype of the mean-spirited pedantic grammarian, and people keep misusing innocent expressions. In the spirit of friendliness, here are some common expressions that are often mispronounced and/or misspelled, along with the correct usage, and most importantly, explanations for each.
People Say, “Hone In On.”
They Mean, “Home In On.”
The word hone means either to sharpen, or the stone used to sharpen, a blade or cutting tool. It does not mean to find, focus on, isolate, or target a thing, which is what we’re trying to do when we home in on a signal, for example. But it’s easy to see (and to hear!) why lots of people make this mistake.
The words home and hone are very much alike. The only phonological difference between them is in the final phoneme. One uses the bilabial nasal [m] (the M sound, for those of us who grew up on Sesame Street), and the other uses the alveolar nasal [n] (the N sound). These two consonant sounds are produced very near to each other in the mouth, and they sound a lot alike if you’re not paying close attention. Further, the meanings of the two words are kind of alike--idiomatically, anyway.
People usually use the verb home in an idiomatic way, since most of us are neither pigeons nor guided missiles, which are the only things I can think of that literally “home in on” anything. To “home in on” a thing, we need to focus our attention on it, and we often talk about sharpening our focus (though for some reason we don’t talk about blunt focus…). It’s not that big of a leap from an idiomatic “home in on” to an idiomatic, but nonsensical, “hone in on.”
If you’ve never seen this usage in print, you can easily be forgiven for mixing up the two. Remember the difference by imagining that you’re doing as a homing pigeon does, and homing in on your goal.
People Say, “For All Intensive Purposes.”
They Mean, “For All Intents And Purposes.”
Like the malapropism above, they do sound alike, especially if the speaker’s diction is strongly colloquial, or if the speaker is speaking quickly. The expression is an old legal phrase, and as you probably know, it means that something can be assumed to be so. For example, “For all intents and purposes, this article marks the writer as a hopeless word nerd.” This cliché, however, is a bit of a redundancy, since one’s intent and one’s purpose have very close meanings, which might cause someone to think, “All intents and purposes? That just doesn’t sound right. It’s got to be the other thing.” But alas, people—even well-educated ones—sometimes speak and write in redundant clichés like it’s going out of style and there’s no tomorrow.
Unfortunately, there is no semantic rationalization for making this error. I have no idea what an “intensive” purpose might be. Perhaps it’s a purpose that requires great physical and/or mental exertion and endurance, with failure resulting in dire consequences. Brain surgery or firefighting might be considered “intensive purposes.” But I doubt very much that any tool exists that can be used for all intensive purposes. (It puts out fires, removes brain tumors, negotiates the safe release of hostages, and fits in this attractive leatherette case! But wait; there’s more!)
This is another malapropism that can be forgiven if you’ve never seen the expression in print (though some people who should bloody well know better are putting the incorrect version in print, adding to the confusion). Remember the difference by trying to imagine a device that could possibly be useful for all intensive purposes, and having a good laugh at the absurdity.
People Say, “It Takes Two to Tangle.”
They Mean, “It Takes Two to Tango.”
Well, tangle and tango sound alike. Like hone and home, they only differ in their final phonemes, and those are formed similarly. Look at their International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) transcriptions*: tangle is [tæŋgl] and tango is [tæŋgo]. One ends with a (very vowel-like) alveolar lateral approximate (the L-sound). The other with a close-mid back vowel (The O-sound). We can see a possible phonological source of the confusion, especially if the speaker is not enunciating clearly. There’s also a semantic explanation.
The meaning of the expression is that you need a partner to accomplish whatever it is you’re suspected of doing--usually something you ought not to be doing. One sometimes encounters the corrupted version of this phrase when angry parents chide quarreling siblings. When one kid blames the fight on the other, the parent might respond, “It takes two to tangle!” (An unfortunate consequence of the “It takes two to tangle” doctrine is that under it, kids are sometimes punished for standing up to schoolyard bullies, but that’s another article.) The original phrase, “It takes two to tango,” is literally true; one cannot dance a tango without a partner. The corruption, however, is not literally true. One length of string can tangle itself up just fine on its own, thank you. When using the word tangle idiomatically to mean fight (as in “don’t tangle with me”), the phrase does become literally true. It does take (at least) two to fight. If only one person were fighting, it would not be a fight, but an assault.
But even if two people are tangling, both participants are not always equally guilty. Remember the correct phrase by realizing that while you need a willing partner to dance a tango, it takes only one person to pick a fight.
*All of this phonology jargon probably doesn’t mean much to you non-nerds out there, but if it makes me sound like I know what I’m talking about, it’s serving its purpose.
People Say, “The Spitting Image.”
They Mean, “The Spit And Image.”
People often drop their gs in informal speech, as in, “Is anyone sittin’ here?” Now say the word spitting informally. “Are you spittin’ for accuracy or for distance?” Okay, now that we’ve heard that, consider that the conjunction and often gets shortened to almost a grunt in informal speech, for example, “Would you rather have ham ’n’ cheese, or ham ’n’ eggs?”
Now consider that prescriptive grammarians (oh, how I dislike them!) love to correct people’s pronunciations when people speak informally (which is not synonymous with ‘incorrectly’). Think about a kid growing up learning from a prescriptive grammarian, and constantly being ‘corrected’ when he says, “I’m workin’ on my homework.” Whap! comes the ruler, and the old-school teacher says, “You mean you’re workingggg on your homework.” Pretty soon, the kid will take pains to say working, thinking, sleeping, and eating. But much to his teacher’s chagrin, he will almost certainly also start saying things like, “I want to climb that mounting,” and, “We’re having Kentucky Fried Chicking for supper.” (Both of these usages have been documented in the rural US.)
The fancy linguistic term for this phenomenon is “hypercorrection.” (If you want to be excruciatingly exact, this particular kind of hypercorrection is called “hypercompensation of pronunciation.”) It’s not hard to see how a person who hasn’t read much, and has been constantly harassed by a prescriptive hater of contractions, would take the phrase, “spit and image,” which he had always pronounced as, “spit ’n’ image” in relaxed company, and corrupt it into “spitting image” when in a more formal setting.
How do I know that “spit and image” is right, and “spitting image” is wrong? Well, I don't know for certain sure. The phrase “spit and image” does have the oldest known usage in print, which isn't enough to go on. But. If you go farther back in time, you see constructions like, "he's the very spit of his father," and, "he's the very image of his father." Further back, you find phrases like, "you and he are as much alike as if thou hadst spit him." It's not hard to see how both constructions came to be used redundantly, especially when you consider the phrase "all intents and purposes."
I personally believe that the phrase is an allusion to an Egyptian creation myth, wherein the god Atun (or Atum) is said to have taken some dirt and some of his own spit, mixed them together, and created a couple other beings in his own image. Note that this is my educated opinion only, and not supported even a little bit by scholarly research, as I haven’t gotten around to it yet.
To remember which usage is accepted in formal English, remember that “spit and image” makes sense. The other one doesn’t, since images can’t spit.
People Say, “Rain In” (or “Reign In")
They Mean, “Rein In.”
First, when speaking, it doesn’t matter how you spell things. If you’re thinking rain when you say, “We really need to reign in government spending,” nobody’s going to know. But if you write it down, everyone will see your error. Everyone, that is, except for your computer’s spell-checker, because even though you were looking for the word rein, both rain and reign are perfectly good words.
We all know what rain is: it’s the wet stuff that falls from the sky sometimes. Reign is a bit more obscure, especially to modern Americans who don’t much go in for royalty. It means either the time during which a monarch held the throne, as in, “Queen Victoria’s reign lasted from 1837 to 1901,” or what the monarch does simply by being the monarch, as in, “Queen Victoria reigned for 64 years.” But unless you know horses and riding, you might never come into contact with the word rein, which is one of two lengths of (usually) leather that hang from each side of a horse’s bit, and which a rider uses to tell the horse which way to go. The long controlly straps on a stagecoach, covered wagon, or sleigh are also called reins. (Santa uses them to steer his reindeer.)
Remember which spelling to use by thinking about how Santa stops his reindeer: he pulls on the reins. And that’s how you slow down something that’s getting out of control: you rein it in.
What Would You Like to Know Next?
Robert Levine from Brookline, Massachusetts on January 07, 2015:
I had to correct a co-worker who wrote "hone in" in a report yesterday.
Suzie from Carson City on August 07, 2014:
Wonderful! My favorite topic. I'm a person who believes no matter how much we know (or think we know) we can ALWAYS learn more!! Thanks for this tutorial. Up+++
emory76 on March 12, 2014:
Actually, I have read that "spitting image" comes from an old African American phrase "spirit and image". In other words, "he is the spirit and image of his father". Over time, I guess, because of the southern accent, it started sounding like "spitting image".
Chanpears on February 08, 2014:
The spit and image point makes a lot of sense. Of course it's a little tough to stop saying spitting image, but I'll keep this in mind.
Mary Wickison from Brazil on December 14, 2013:
I am guilty of two of these. All intensive purposes and spitting image.
I agree with Silva Hayes. "I could care less", drives me crazy.
Thanks for the help, I will try to commit it to memory.
One thing I would like to know. Why are cliches so bad in writing? Don't they get the point across?
Avinesh Prahladi from Chandigarh on October 25, 2013:
Thanks Jeff Berndt, for this informative hub. By the way, I really liked the image of Mc Hammer that you have used.
Wakerra on May 16, 2013:
I think one of my all time favorites is "I'm afraid your not being pacific enough with me", instead of "specific"
Silva Hayes from Spicewood, Texas on April 27, 2013:
Here's one I've never understood; many people say, "I could care less!" when they obviously mean, "I couldn't care less."
Cat from New York on April 27, 2013:
Yes, a little humor certainly never hurts!
Jeff Berndt (author) from Southeast Michigan on April 27, 2013:
Hi, Cantuhearmescream, thanks for stopping by and commenting. Yes, I was going for a bit of friendly humor. I've long thought that if you can make someone chuckle, it'll help them remember what you said. Thanks for the kind words!
Cat from New York on April 27, 2013:
I don't know if this was intended to be humorous, but I definitely found it quite funny. I have to admit, I found myself talking to myself to make sure I wasn't guilty of any of these grammar faux pas. I particularly liked “For all intensive purposes.” I don't know why, but that one just bothers me... I hear it all the time. You touched on some really good ones and gave excellent explanations behind them, but I hear so many of these so regularly. Aloud or out loud?
Voted up and funny!
Jeff Berndt (author) from Southeast Michigan on January 07, 2013:
"Running rampart?" "Apauled?" That's great. Sounds like a Dilbert cartoon, really. Thanks for the chuckle!
Silva Hayes from Spicewood, Texas on January 06, 2013:
Long ago I worked downtown in a large office. One day the office manager fired off a heated memo to the support staff. She said that we must keep the kitchen cleaner; that she went in late last night and was apauled to see that roaches were running rampart. Furthermore, she said that we needed to be more diligent in proofing our work; that too many typos were slipping by us. You can imagine the snickering that went on that day.
Elizabeth on September 28, 2012:
Lol. Not sure. I live in New York City but I hear people on television use this on a daily basis. I have known a few people personally that have also used "taken back". Maybe not a regional thing, but a stupid people thing? :) Just kidding.
Tricia Mason from The English Midlands on September 24, 2012:
I haven't heard "taken back", either.
Jeff Berndt (author) from Southeast Michigan on September 24, 2012:
Thanks for the kind words! I mention the phrase "taken aback" in my article about English words and phrases with nautical origins: http://hub.me/aaF8e
Though, I've never heard anyone say "taken back" in place of "taken aback." Might this be a regional thing?
Elizabeth on September 21, 2012:
You forgot another big one. People always make the mistake of saying "taken back" instead of "taken aback" when they are referring to being caught off guard. "Taken back" refers to a place in time. It drives me crazy when I hear people say this!!! But not as much as when I hear "hone in on"- that drives me up the wall!!! Thank you for having a page dedicated to fixing this!
Jeff Berndt (author) from Southeast Michigan on July 03, 2012:
Well, the short, true, and unsatisfying answer is this: It's too early to tell. The pronunciation you describe is pretty common in the American Midwest, where I'm from, and a lot of celebrities and on-air personalities deliberately try to cultivate a middle-American dialect, in the same way that on-air personalities of the early- and mid-20th Century adopted what was called a mid-Atlantean dialect, a sort of hybrid between standard northeastern American speech and British 'received pronunciation.' It could be a passing thing, and standard formal/on-air speech might go back to 'for' rhyming with 'more.' But it might become a new accepted formal pronunciation, and maybe someday we'll hear newscasters and university presidents talking about their plans 'fer' the future.
Interestingly, I note that you want 'for' to rhyme with 'or,' but if someone says, "I'll be busy 'fer' the next two hours," I'll bet you a dozen donuts that they'll also say "I can meet you fer lunch er fer dinner, yer pick." Though when 'for' shows up at the end of a sentence, as in, "What's this button for?" it seems much more likely (and more acceptable in formal speech) to sound like 'fore' than 'fer.'
Fascinating thing, language. It's always changing.
carol on June 22, 2012:
Hi Jeff, well another question.not interesting but a "wanting to know" for sure. I have noticed reporters, movies, people being interviewed, etc. has begone to say the word "for" as "fer". What is going on here? I was taught this word to be pronounced as "or".
Jeff Berndt (author) from Southeast Michigan on June 17, 2012:
Yes, Dave, above, has mentioned that theory as well. It has the ring of a folk-etymology to me--one that surely /sounds/ right, and that a lot of people accept as true, for good and logical reasons. But I haven't been able to find (yet!) an example of the phrase "Spirit and image," from before the 20th century, while the phrase "spit and image" appears in very old texts.
The real test of which usage is older is which usage has the earliest example in print (or in manuscript, if it's from before printing). The oldest written example will win. So far, "spit-and-image is older" (from middle of the 19th century. "Spitting image" is younger, from about 1901.
The example quoted in the article above ("...alike as if thou hadst spit him") come from the 1400s, So "spit" being a corruption* of 'spirit' seems unlikely--now that we know the history.
Has anyone out there found an example of the phrase "Spirit-and-image" dated before, say, 1850?
*I use the word 'corruption' for convenience only. It's not really 'corruption' but evolution when pronunciation and usage changes....maybe there's an article in that by itself.
carol on June 15, 2012:
i read the idiom "spitting image" has always been wrongly spoken due to our ancestors chewing tobacco and uneducated way back when.......isn't it really "spirit and image"?
Tricia Mason from The English Midlands on June 10, 2012:
Yes, the puppets. Worth checking out!
Jeff Berndt (author) from Southeast Michigan on June 10, 2012:
'Spitting Image'--that's the one with the puppets, right? I only know about them because of their appearance in Genesis' 'Land of Confusion" video.
Thanks for stopping by!
Tricia Mason from The English Midlands on June 10, 2012:
I find this a very interesting subject.
We hadn't really considered 'spit and image' in our house ~ though I had certainly heard the phrase 'the very spit'.
I suppose that it comes from watching the TV comedy show 'Spitting Image' :)
Dave on March 16, 2012:
Hey Jeff, down here in the South, we know that Spitt'n Image is short for "spirit and image"...
People used to say, "you are the spirit and image of your father" and eventually it was shortened, as many phrase are around "hea"!
Jeff Berndt (author) from Southeast Michigan on March 01, 2012:
Wow, that's a great question, worthy of a good response. H'm... A short but practical answer is this: use "a" when you're talking about some unspecified thing, e.g.: "Let's open a bottle of wine." But when you mean a specific thing, use "the," as in, "Yes, how about the '98 chablis?" (Assuming there's only one '98 chablis in the wine rack.)
But even this isn't definitive, because you can use them interchangeably in this pair of sentences: "You can get downtown quickly if you take a bus," or "You can get downtown quickly if you take the bus." These sentences are semantically almost identical. Any difference is so small that most people wouldn't even see one, so small as to be functionally nonexistent for most purposes. You can take "a bus" or take "the bus," and you'll get to where you're going.
This is a great idea for an article of its own. No promises as to how long it'll be before I write it, though. Also, I'd be surprised if someone hasn't already examined the question in a thesis or dissertation for a linguistics degree. While you're waiting for me to write something more helpful, you might check your local university's library to see if there already exists such a work.
Thanks for your question. It's got me thinking.
All the best,
Cher Gunderson on February 29, 2012:
I am an accent modification specialist and was searching for the most commonly mispronounced phonemes by accented individuals. I have learned the derivation of these mispoken phrases. I am curioius-can you shed some light on the rules for use of "the" and "a" in a practical manner? Many of the foreign-born clients with whom I work struggle with when to use these articles.
I look forward to your response Jeff!
Master Your Accent
Jeff Berndt (author) from Southeast Michigan on January 16, 2012:
I don't think I've ever heard "short-lived" being spoken out loud, though I've seen it in print fairly often. And there's another one: many Americans want to pronounce the T in "often," making it sound like "off-ten."
I'm actually in favor of people making these errors: it gives me something to write about. :)
NatalieSack from Pittsburgh, PA on January 11, 2012:
Thank you for this. It's comforting to know there are so many other people out there picky about language! I hate when people pronounce short-lived with a short i, as in, "I live in a house." It is derivative of having a short life, and so is pronounced with a long i.
Recommended for You
Ann Carr from SW England on January 02, 2012:
Yes. American spelling, too, is much simpler and is now being used much more often here. I try not to be too pedantic and I'm not one of those who correct colleagues' writing on the school noticeboard!! The subject always creates much debate though which is brilliant!
Jeff Berndt (author) from Southeast Michigan on January 01, 2012:
Hi, annart, thanks for commenting!
Interestingly, when there's a difference between American and British English, the innovation isn't always on the American side. Sometimes it's the old country that changed. (Enlgand can be more relaxed about changes in language, probably because it doesn't feel like it has anything to prove.)
Ann Carr from SW England on January 01, 2012:
I get very frustrated by mistakes in grammar in the press, on shop signs, as well as those I hear from presenters on the radio and television (who should know better as it's their job!). Language does, of course, evolve but it should not be abused! From one purist to another, thank you (even though you have some Americanisms which naturally come in the 'evolved' category!). Great explanations of a difficult subject.
Steve Orion from Tampa, Florida on November 28, 2011:
Interesting! I always used that word incorrectly, I must admit. Seems such mistakes in the English language are commonplace, thanks for the enlightenment.
Jeff Berndt (author) from Southeast Michigan on November 28, 2011:
Hello, Steve and georgethegent, thanks for stopping by! Yes, Steve, there's a bunch more "you're saying it wrong" scattered around, as well as a few other articles on grammatical stuff. I hope you enjoy them. george, the beauty of the English language is that it's always changing, stealing vocabulary from other languages and coining brand-new words as the need arises. The downside, if there is one, is that an incorrect or nonsensical usage, if it stays in use long enough, eventually becomes standard. I've noticed the misuse of the word "comprises" for "contains" or "is made up of" a lot lately, even on the BBC. Not much to be done about it, I'm afraid.
georgethegent from Hillswick, Shetland, UK on November 28, 2011:
Good on you Jeff!!! It's unfortunate that even the British can't get it right half of the time.
Steve Orion from Tampa, Florida on November 28, 2011:
Wow! You have a whole series, you say? I've got some more reading to do. Thanks for the humor(since I knew all these).
Jeff Berndt (author) from Southeast Michigan on September 13, 2011:
Hi, BusinessTime, thanks for the kind words! I've been idle for far too long; another "You're Saying it Wrong" is in the works.
Sarah Kolb-Williams from Twin Cities on September 13, 2011:
Great information -- I'm a bit of a word geek, and this was great fun. Keep the hubs coming!!
Mike on July 03, 2011:
I was going to comment that I wanted to know about the gruntled thing, but you already have a link up to the article. Thanks! I'm off to read it now.
ruffridyer from Dayton, ohio on June 10, 2011:
First off I always said "for all intents and purposes"
I admit to saying "Takes two to tango" Tangle does make more sense. As to Spitting Image, I heard that the original phase is "He is the Spirit and Image of his father" It was a phase black people used back in the day.
As for thing driving me nuts, Why do we call rational people Sane and irrational people Insane? Shouldn't the proper word be Unsane!
Muldanianman on June 03, 2011:
There is a TV programme in the UK called QI, which referred to the phrase 'spitting image.' It stated that this is actually a corruption of the original 'splitting image' meaning that something that looks like a mirror image, as if it has been split down the middle.
deblipp on April 27, 2011:
The only one of these I've ever heard used is "spitting image," but these are all fun to read.
Jeff Berndt (author) from Southeast Michigan on April 26, 2011:
LOL, Rachael, you got me on that one. And if I'd been drinking my coffee at the time, I'd have to replace my keyboard. 'Cos I'm not an image. ;)
Rachael Lefler from Illinois on April 25, 2011:
Bullocks! Images can't spit. You sir, have never doodled a flip book!
Tony McGregor from South Africa on April 11, 2011:
Like Trish the one that I learned here was the "spitting image" one. Both my parents, fairly strict grammarians themselves, actually used that expression quite often so I grew up thinking it must be right!
Love and peace
Tricia Mason from The English Midlands on April 09, 2011:
I wasn't aware of these errors that people make ~ except for one: 'spitting image'. I had always assumed that this was correct :)
Julie on March 25, 2011:
Great, Jeff!! Love these. May I request "tow the line/toe the line"? :D
Jeff Berndt (author) from Southeast Michigan on March 01, 2011:
Yes, popular usages like that (even if they are nonsensical) don't help when trying to sort out what the standard usage is.
(BTW, I loved the Spitting Image puppets on the Land of Confusion video back in the day, though I never really saw the show itself).
ken on March 01, 2011:
Maybe when they say Spitting Image, they are referring to the British puppets from the 80's?
herzschmerz from Edinburgh, Scotland on February 24, 2011:
I love these sorts of articles, because I am also extremely pedantic about incorrect grammar and mispronunciations. I'll definitely be checking out more Hubs you've written.
ekenzy on February 24, 2011:
this words are knowledgeable for mankind. nice hub.
Jeff Berndt (author) from Southeast Michigan on February 14, 2011:
Thanks for the kind words. I'm flattered and pleased that you want to link to this article. Please do! After reading a couple of your articles, I think I'll follow you right back.
All the best,
RTalloni on February 14, 2011:
Great stuff you have here. Fun to read your hub and the comments.
We need to be willing to laugh at ourselves on a moment's notice. I sometimes "see" words in my head before I speak them. The letters just pop up as if I have a white billboard with black letters in my head. The result is that I often pronounce the "seen" word phonetically. The result is that I sound like a true dunce even though I know how the word should be said. If I couldn't laugh at myself I would be afraid to speak a word.
Still, I have been surprised at the sort of people who use "pacific" when they should say "specific." It leaves me with such an odd feeling to hear a quality speaker do that!
Glad you highlighted this topic so well! If you don't mind I would like to link this hub to my, "On Speaking English..." hub. Let me know if you object. I'll be following you in hopes of reading hubs generated from your survey. Thanks!
wayne on February 13, 2011:
there is an ad on tv for eharmony where a girl says they are different because they "hone in" on whatever. they, or their ad people should know better.
pennyofheaven from New Zealand on February 05, 2011:
I make a lot of grammatical errors. Very useful hub for me! I am guilty of the spitting image one. Thanks!
Jeff Berndt (author) from Southeast Michigan on January 15, 2011:
Or "their." My personal pet peeve is "should of," but much has already been written about that purgatorial bit of grammatical abuse.
Robert P from Canada on January 15, 2011:
Worst of all is the common mistake of using "there" instead of "they're".
Truckstop Sally on January 13, 2011:
Thanks! Over time we pick up bad habits/grammar/sayings.
mquee from Columbia, SC on December 28, 2010:
Never really gave it much thought, but you are absolutely right. People (I) say these things thinking we are right. The one I used most often I think is, "spitting image." Thanks for sharing.
Quilligrapher from New York on December 27, 2010:
Thank you, Jeff, for addressing my request. Q.
KKalmes from Chicago, Illinois on December 27, 2010:
Hello Jeff, and thank you for clearing that up for me... hope your holidays are bright and cheery!
RunAbstract from USA on December 26, 2010:
Thanks for the clarification, and the survey! Nice!
Jen King from Wyandotte Michigan on December 24, 2010:
Thanks Jeff! I clicked the "Email me" button to get an alert from HP when you responded, and the message I got has the biggest grammar bomb in the English language:
"We thought you would like to know that Jeff Berndt recently commented on their Hub..."
Why don't we have a gender neutral, singular pronoun?
(HubPages - please correct your alert. Clumsy as it may be, it should read "his or her hub")
Jeff Berndt (author) from Southeast Michigan on December 24, 2010:
Thanks, all, for the kind words. tnderhrt23, that comma controversy has been going on for a long time. I'm in the Oxford Comma school, and hubber Jane Grey has an excellent article on the subject:
Quilligrapher, 'tenty-one' is an awesome application of a regular rule to an irregular construction. There's an actual answer, though, and it's related to why the "teen" numbers start at thirteen rather than "two-teen" or "one-teen," and why 13 is considered by many to be an unlucky number.
Wyanjen, If you can answer the question with 'him,' then you use 'whom' to ask it. (The reason for the rule is more complicated and interesting, and worth an article, so thanks for the idea!)
FCEtier, commas and dashes (and quotation marks!) give the best of us fits, especially in online media where sometimes you're forced to use a double-dash instead of an em-dash, and apostrophes are turned into quotation marks against our will.... Consistency is the key, when writing for yourself. And when writing for hire, obey the style book your employer picks.
UW, I never thought about "just deserts" before.
Live, Something else interesting about spit/image: I came across another theory since publishing this--it might be a corruption of "spitten" image, where "spitten" is meant to be a past-participle of "to spit" (like "bitten" is of "to bite.") But if you consider, the rule for "bite" won't work for "spit," because the root would have to be "to spite," which it isn't. It's treacherously easy to make assumptions in etymology, and really hard to conclusively prove the etymology of even common expressions, because everyone assumes that they already know.
Fascinating stuff, historical linguistics. I owe a lot to my former teachers, Dr. Sheila Most (now semi-retired) and Dr. T. Daniel Seely, both of Eastern Michigan University.
Mark Ewbie from UK on December 24, 2010:
Yes, good hub, agree with what you are saying. Language evolves over time though and it may be that the 'wrong' expressions today become the literary standard of tomorrow.
imatellmuva from Somewhere in Baltimore on December 23, 2010:
I rrreeeaaallly (can I do that?) need to follow you!!
Jason Menayan from San Francisco on December 23, 2010:
This is great. I expected to read the list and nod in agreement at all 5, but it turns out I learned something new: it's spit and image, not spitting image. I had no idea! Thanks!
SteveoMc from Pacific NorthWest on December 23, 2010:
I used to say the intense and purposes too, recently was pointed out to me by my son that I was wrong. He loved that, and I learned something. Nice hub.
Susan Keeping from Kitchener, Ontario on December 23, 2010:
Great stuff. I just learned about "intents and purposes" a couple of years ago.
There is also "just deserts" which people often write as "just desserts."
Chip from Cold Mountain on December 23, 2010:
My wife proofs my writing, and says I'm always goofing up with commas and dashes -- what's a guy to do?
Please continue this series.
Jen King from Wyandotte Michigan on December 22, 2010:
Who vs. whom...
:P Im embarrassed to admit that cant ever get this one right!
PS yes, I do know my punctuation. My apostrophe key is just broken
Quilligrapher from New York on December 22, 2010:
Very nice and enjoyable hub. Perhaps you might comment on why the number 11 isn't spoken "tenty-one." Q.
lmmartin from Alberta and Florida on December 22, 2010:
Interesting hub, Jeff.
tnderhrt23 on December 22, 2010:
Thanks for the clarifications...incorrect grammar, spelling and punctuation are pet peeves of mine, I hate to admit, but I try hard to get it right. Although I don't think I have ever used the term, the "hone in" vs. "Home in" was news to me. I will remember that. I have trouble with comma placement in lists...can't ever remember if, in a list of three things, for instance, a comma goes after the second item before "and" or not...I tend to use one when I am not sure it is needed....anyway, great hub! Thanks!
suziecat7 from Asheville, NC on December 22, 2010:
For a long time I said "It takes two to tangle". Then I saw it written as "tango". Guilty!! Nice Hub.
Sarah from Melbourne, Australia on December 22, 2010: