Don't let misuse of common phrases make you look less than brilliant. Here is a verbal toolkit to help you avoid common language mistakes.
The English language has a lot of tricks up its sleeve. Just when you think you’ve mastered it, you find yourself on the wrong side of some homophone, contraction, or colloquialism—mispronouncing something you’ve only ever read or mistyping a phrase you’ve only ever heard.
Or maybe English is not your first language and somehow there are STILL new grammar rules to learn. Why do they keep changing grammar?!
Table of Contents
What are homophones, contractions, and colloquialisms?
- Homophones are pairs or sets of words that sound the exact same but are spelled differently and have different meanings. (Think of heir and air, or two/too/to.)
- Contractions are more familiar than they sound: they’re just two words squished together for abbreviation. See what I did there? They are = they’re (a contraction!).
- Colloquialisms are informal words and phrases that we use in conversational English but don’t always get quite right when we put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. For example, to “be blue” means to be sad. Some colloquialisms shouldn’t be used in formal essays or personal statement writing at all (e.g., colloquial contractions like gonna, wanna, gotta). But we’ll cover all that soon enough.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve made my fair share of embarrassing errors. I literally have a doctorate in English, and I still manage to make some mistakes. We’re human; it’ll happen.
But I put together this handy guide to walk you through some of the most common blunders and save you from a little embarrassment—like the time a professor pointed out on my grad-level paper that “hone in” was not actually the proper phrase (it’s home in!!!) and that “center around” makes no logical sense. (Whoops!)
Unfair or misguided as it may seem, such errors can be taken for careless proofreading at best and ignorance at worst. But have no fear! By the end of this guide, you’ll be feeling like the word whiz you really are.
Disclaimer: Don’t feel bad if a bunch of these blow your mind. There are a couple (I’m not telling you which) that I discovered in the process of making this guide for you, and I’ve been trained to teach this language at a university level! Many of the things in this guide draw on cultural knowledge as well as grammatical or semantic knowledge, so we’ll be covering a lot of ground.
Let’s get started! First things first:
Good ole’ Homophones
As I said above, homophones sound the same when you say them aloud, but they look different on paper and they have different meanings. Mixing them up can lead your statement completely astray.
We’ll start with a really easy one:
Weather versus Whether
Weather is a noun or a verb, depending on how you want to use it. And it generally refers to – well, the weather! You know – clouds and rain and stuff. As in: “The weather ruined our trip to Florida.”
As a verb, it means – subject to the weather over time: “That tree has weathered many hurricanes and it’s still standing,” or, “The rocks had been weathered over time.”
Whether, on the other hand, is a conjunction that expresses a doubt or choice between two things: “I couldn’t tell whether she wanted to be my friend (or not).” I added the “or not” here for clarity (to emphasize that “whether” indicates two options), but you don’t actually need it in the sentence—it’s implied. Weather = Rain; Whether = alternatives.
Now for a tricky but important one:
Effect versus Affect
Both effect and affect can function as a noun (a thing) and as a verb (an action), and both words have a variety of meanings. As a noun, an “effect” refers to something that is produced by an agency or cause: a result, consequence. It has other meanings, but that’s the most important. When used as a verb, it means “to produce as an effect; bring about; accomplish; make happen.” (“The medicine effected a cure to my illness.”)
“Affect,” as a noun, can refer to a feeling or emotion or to an expressed or observed emotional response. It’s used more often as a verb, however, and means “to act on; produce an effect or change in” or “to impress the mind or move the feelings of.”
As you can probably see, the nuances and layers of their meanings make differentiating between them pretty tricky. The simplest (but not foolproof) way to keep them straight is this:
Generally speaking, use “effect” when it’s a noun in your sentence and “affect” when it’s a verb. For example, “What effect will the budget cuts have on me?” VERSUS “How will the budget cut affect me?”
That said, never forget that affect can be a noun—e.g. “Her flat affect made it difficult to read her mood”—and effect can be a verb—as in, “His primary desire was to effect change.” The only truly foolproof way to always get them right is to develop an awareness of their distinct definitions.
Accept versus Except
Accept means “to take or receive something offered; to receive with approval or favor; to agree or consent to” (you get the picture). It’s a verb, plain and simple. You accept a proposal, you accept the consequences, etc. Except basically means “excluding”—”with the exclusion of; save; but”—and it’s most often used as a preposition, to indicate (you’ll never guess!) that something is excluded (“I like all fruits except pears”). It can also be used as a conjunction (“I wouldn’t have gone to the dance, except that I promised Sue I would”), but that’s not especially important to remember. Just remember: You do not “except” consequences or “except” a marriage proposal.
Whether you knew it or not, “capital” is the correct word if you’re referring to a capital city, capital gains, and most of the other things that might come to mind. A “capitol” refers to something quite specific: a building used for state legislature. The state capital for Texas is Austin, but there is also a capitol building located there for the state legislators to use.
A principal usually refers to someone in charge (like the school principal) or to a sum of money. A principle is something you live by—per Google dictionary: “a fundamental truth or proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of belief or behavior or for a chain of reasoning.” You wouldn’t want to say that something “goes against your principals.”
A peak is like an uppermost point, like mountain peak. To peek is a form of looking (in a creepy, quick, or shy way). And “pique,” the most underappreciated of them, means to stimulate. This is most important when it comes to the phrase “to pique interest.” Many folks mix this up and use “peak” instead (“peak interest” = nope!).
The correct phrase for this one is deep-seated. As in, “I have some deep-seated concerns about inequality in this nation.” It means that these concerns are firmly established; they exist at a deep or profound level for you. (It’s not a cultivation metaphor or reference to soil depth, which is what probably throws people off.) Sorry to break it to you, but deep-seeded doesn’t really mean anything at all.
Pour over/Pore over
Surprising as it may seem, if you’re talking about carefully reading something (books, documents, sources) the correct phrase is actually “to pore over.” This comes from a little-known meaning of the verb “pore”: “to read/study with great attention.” A pour over is just a way to make coffee.
If something doesn’t bother or perturb you, you are unfazed. You might also say “not fazed.” To faze is to disrupt someone’s composure. A “phase,” as you probably know, is like a stage. While “unphased” won’t come up as a typo in Microsoft Word, it isn’t really anything at all (beyond a misspelling of unfazed, that is).
Aloud is another way of saying “out loud”; allowed refers to permission. (“Passengers are not allowed inside the cockpit” vs. “My teacher read the poem aloud.”)
You know what lead means. A lede is the opening sentence or paragraph of a news article. It’s supposed to summarize the most important aspects of the story. So if you say, “the author buried the lede,” it means that the most important points of the story are hard to get at—other (potentially distracting) information gets in the way. But perhaps more importantly is understanding the past tense of lead. “Led” is the past tense for “lead.” (Line leaders are supposed to lead those behind them; The line leaders led poorly, and some kids got lost.) A lot of people think lead is the last tense of lead (probably because read is the past tense of reads). But nope, it's led!
So basic and yet so crucial. “To” is your usual preposition (“I’m going to the store”). Too is used for emphasis or to mean “also”: “I ate too much candy on Halloween”; “I want to go to New York and Kentucky, too”.
This is another oft-overlooked but important homophone that you might not even know existed. A compliment is what you’ve paid when you say someone looks nice or makes a mean casserole. A complement is something that completes or brings to perfection and thus “to complement” (with the “e”) is to enhance or improve, to make perfect. For example, “This wine really complements our seafood” or “Green blouses complement my eyes.”
Things with (and without) Apostrophes
Apostrophes Could’ve (Could have) versus Could of (and Should of/Should have)
Could’ve is the contraction for could have. “Could of” is not a proper phrase, nor is “should of” (should’ve, likewise, is a contraction for should have).
And please oh please keep the following straight:
- Its vs. it’s: (its is possessive: “The dog loves its bone.”) vs. It’s (contraction for “it is”)
- Your vs. You’re: Think of Ross Gellar on Friends: y-o-u-r means YOUR; you*re means YOU ARE
- Their (possessive) vs. There: (“go stand over there”) vs. They’re (they are)
Commonly (Mis)used Colloquialisms and Sayings
Listed below are some commonly misused sayings in their proper form:
“Nip in the bud”
Please don’t ever say (or write) that you wanted to “nip” something “in the butt.” The correct expression is to “nip it in the bud,” as in, before the thing concerned blossoms/blooms/comes to fruition.
If something jibes with you, it means that it suits you, agrees with you, is in accord with you. To “jive with” someone or something isn’t actually a saying, though it is a 1930s dance style.
You might’ve heard people say (or said yourself) “one in the same,” but the correct phrase is “one and the same”—meaning, simply enough, the same personal or thing. Clark Kent and Superman are one and the same.
“Case in point”
A “case in point” is an illustrative example—it’s a good example of exactly what you happen to be discussing. It’s sometimes mistakenly referred to as a “case and point,” but under that formation, the case that you’re pointing out and the point that you’re trying to make wouldn’t necessarily have to have anything to do with each other! Think about it this way: you mention a case in making your point.
Watch out for its similar-sounding but not quite logical cousin, “worse-case scenario.” When you’re looking at a worst-case scenario, you aren’t considering a scenario that’s somewhat or slightly worse than another, you are looking at the worst possible scenario. What’s the worst that could happen? That’s your worst-case scenario.
You might think you’re a shoo-in for the job, but your patent leather shoes ain’t got nothing to do with it. A sure winner is a “shoo-in,” which draws on the verb shoo, “to urge something in a desired direction.” (You know, like, “shoo fly, don’t bother me”?) The phrase originated in the 1930s with rigged horse-racing. So be sure not to tell anyone that you’re a “shoe-in.”
This commonly misused phrase (“wet your appetite”) stems from those tricky homophones we just discussed. To “wet” something is to moisten it, while to “whet” something is to sharpen or hone it. Archaically, a “whet” (noun) was a thing that stimulated appetite or desire—hence our still-used phrase, “to whet the appetite.”
“Rein in” (and “free rein”)
Another homophone-based blunder leads many of us to the incorrect expression, “reign in.” To get this one right, think of horses (instead of royalty). A horse’s bridle has reins that are attached to the bit. If you want to restrict the horse’s movement—to slow its pace or make it stop—you pull in on the reins. Hence the term, reining in. Alternatively, if you want to let the horse canter at will, you give it free rein.
This is probably the most commonly misused expression in this whole guide. Home and hone are both lovely verbs, but they should be used in very different ways. You do not “hone in” on something (meaning, zoom in/zero in/focus on). You hone a skill or an ability (e.g. “I’ve been honing my writing skills lately”), but you home in on something. To remember this, think of pigeons—homing pigeons, to be precise. These little guys home in on a specified destination. They certainly aren’t called honing pigeons
You’ve got your toe to the line, inches away from crossing it. You’re not pulling the line behind your pick-up truck. (Ixnay on the whole “towing” the line.)
With this phrase, you ask someone to stick with you on something—to hold tight as you go through some complicated explanation or fumble your way through fixing a problem. If you go for the homophone, “bare,” you might end up embarrassing yourself. (“Bare with me”?…Yikes)
I bet you don’t even know what “tenterhooks” are, eh? Most of us don’t. There’s also a good chance that you or someone you know thinks the saying is actually, “on tender hooks.” A tenterhook is a sharp hook that fastens cloth to a tenter (a frame across which cloth is stretched for drying). The phrase aligns the tenseness of stretched fabric to the tenseness of a person. Being “on tenterhooks” is a state of uneasiness, anxiety, suspense.
I know, I know. Somehow the correct phrasing here sounds worse than the more commonly said (though technically incorrect), “you’ve got another thing coming.” While “you’ve got another thing coming” makes pretty logical sense and is very widely used, the original saying runs something like this: “If that’s what you think (you’re wrong), then you’ve got another think coming (i.e. you better think again).”
Many who have only ever heard this phrase, transcribe it as “for all intensive purposes.” This trick of the ear doesn’t really make sense when you put pressure on it.
This is a big one to watch out for. “I could care less” has become a popular phrase over the years, but leaving out the “not” defeats the whole purpose of the phrase. If you couldn’t care less, your level of interest or concern cannot possibly go any lower. You couldn’t possibly be any less concerned about whether we get pizza, Chinese food, sushi, whatever. If you could care less, then you DO CARE, the opposite of the intended meaning of this phrase.
“Center on”/“Centers on”
If you want to state the main theme, point, or intention of a certain document (e.g. “My paper is all about the fall of the Roman Empire”), “centers on” is a nice turn of phrase to have up your sleeve. That said, the variant “centers around” is technically incorrect, for it makes no logical sense—the two terms, “center” and “around,” are in tension with one another.
If you’d like to belt out your agreement with something, the correct expression is “hear, hear” not “here, here” As we learned with homophones, no one will know the difference if you shout it out, but they will notice a difference if you ever write it down. “Hear, hear” is likely a shortening of “hear him, hear him”—a phrase used in Parliament in the 1600s. So unless you’d like to shout about your current location, stick with “hear.”
Things that aren’t actually even words (or shouldn’t be)
a.k.a. “How Social did you wrong”
I’ll make it short and sweet: These aren’t words. (Okay, irregardless and ginormous have technically been added to many dictionaries, but they shouldn’t be words.) Don’t use the following in formal essays or professional correspondence:
- (shoulda, coulda, woulda, etc., etc.)
- Fixin’ (to)
- Nother (as in, “whole nother”)
Finally, let’s make sure you understand the distinctions among:
- Alumna, alumnae, alumni, alumnus
- Alumna (feminine singular) refers to one female graduate (former member, etc.)
- Alumnae (feminine plural) is used for groups of women
- Alumni (masculine plural) works for both mixed gender groups and groups of men
- Alumnus (masculine singular) refers to one male graduate
According to Merriam-Webster, lay and lie have been “tripping up English speakers for 700 years.” So don’t feel bad. But here are some definitions and some ways to keep them straight:
- Lay/Laying means “to place (someone or something) down in a flat position”
- Lie/Lying, on the other hand, means “to be in a flat position on a surface”
See the difference? Lay always has to have an object (meaning, there’s something or someone you have to be doing the laying down to). With lie, the someone or something is doing the lying down all on their own. E.g. I had to lay the books down before I could lie down myself.
- Than and then
- Use “than” for comparisons (“I am taller than my brother.”)
- Use “then” when you want to talk about time or an order of events (“I didn’t realize until then that I had toilet paper on my shoe”; “The then president waved at me”; “I went to the store, and then I went home”)
And truly last—though I doubt it will come up on your applications—did you know that those little green mini cabbages that you hated as a kid are actually called Brussels sprouts (singular: a Brussels sprout), not brussel sprouts?? They’re named after the city of Brussels in Belgium. Crazy.
Some more you can look into for your reference!
- Statue of limitations vs. Statute of limitations (Correct)
- Slight of hand vs. Sleight of hand (Correct)
- Scott free vs. Scot-free (Correct)
- Mute point (or, if you’re Joey Tribbiani, “moo point”) vs. Moot point (Correct)
- First come, first serve vs. First come, first served (Correct)
- Chock it up vs. Chalk it up (Correct)
Before I take my leave, here are a few nifty resources for anything I didn’t cover or any burning questions you may have:
- Purdue Online Writing Lab
- The Chicago Manual of Style Online
- The Elements of Style by William Strunk & E.B. White; illustrated by Maira Kalman
- Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss
- NPR’s OnWords
- And don’t underestimate Google’s Dictionary and Thesaurus.
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