10 Embarrassing Misused Words and Phrases

By Katie LaBranche

Ah, the English language. Difficult to learn, constantly evolving and yet, in spite of these challenges, many countries have adopted English as an official language. Pity the poor EL student who must learn our language while we continue to invent new words (see emoji, LOL, phub) in real time.

Sometimes, though, we’re not inventing — or at least not on purpose. Sometimes we butcher words unintentionally, which is how “regardless” became “irregardless.” The latter has become so commonplace that some argue it’s perfectly acceptable.

Other times, naivety is the source of “new” words. For example, I once thought “ten year” referred to a professor who couldn’t be fired for the specified amount of time, only to find out the actual word is tenure. My colleagues had a giggle about that one. There are actually words for a word or phrase that is used incorrectly—malapropism, eggcorn, oronym, dogberryism.

As a grammar freak, I want to set the record straight. I’ve compiled my top 10 best (and by best, I mean worst) list of commonly misused words and phrases.

1. Irregardless vs. regardless
Forget what we said a couple of paragraphs ago—never use irregardless. Just don’t do it.

2. The spitting image vs. the spit and image
The original phrase, spit and image, is a biblical reference to God’s use of spit and mud to create Adam in his image. The meaning is somewhat intact, as most people say someone is a spitting image if they look just like someone else, such as a father and son, but the incorrect phrase has become the norm after being misused for over a century.

3. I could care less vs. I couldn’t care less
If you’re trying to insult someone by saying you could care less, you probably should because what you mean to say is you couldn’t care less.

4. For all intensive purposes vs. for all intents and purposes
Replace intensive with a synonym, and you’d be doing something for all vigorous purposes, which doesn’t quite make sense. All intents and purposes means doing something for all practical purposes.

5. Statue of limitations vs. statute of limitations
There is not a statue standing in your way. A statute of limitations is a law that puts a limit on how much time can pass between when a crime occurs and when a person can be charged.

6. Suppository information vs. repository information
Suppository information would be the results of your latest rectal exam. What people mean to say is repository information, meaning data saved to a server. I’m sure your coworkers don’t want to hear about your bathroom habits.

7. Peak/peek your interest vs. pique your interest
Peeking is sneaking a glance and peaking is reaching a high point, but piquing someone’s interest means upsetting or exciting someone.

8. Nip in the butt vs. nip in the bud
Sure, you could nip someone in the butt and give them a little goose, but nipping something in the bud means putting an end to it before it becomes a big problem. It comes from the practice of de-budding plants before they bloom, not pinching peoples’ behinds.

9. Mute point vs. moot point
I used to think a mute point was one that didn’t matter so it didn’t need to be heard, but the real phrase, moot point, refers to an issue that has no value or importance, making it unnecessary to discuss.

10. Hunger pains vs. hunger pangs
While “hunger pains” makes sense if you’ve experienced a rumbly feeling in your stomach, “hunger pangs” is more accurate. Pangs can be both an emotional longing and physical pain, like when your stomach growls because you can’t stop thinking about that steak you’re having for dinner later.

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