You’re Saying it Wrong: Five Commonly Misspoken (And Misspelled) Phrases
Your Friendly Neighborhood Grammar Geek, Volume 3
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 really, 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 a further attempt to bring an understanding of standard grammar and usage to the masses, 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 other with a close-mid back vowel. 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 culpable. 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.
More Unsolicited, Pedantic Grammar Advice
What Would You Like to Know Next?
Is there some point of grammar or useage that you'd like clarified?See results without voting
More by this Author
In You're Saying it Wrong, part 3, we'll see why we don't pull our rope 'taunt' when we go 'repelling,' find out why inferring is different from implying, and might literally chuckle at people who try to make metaphors...