There are a lot of strange English sayings out there, and if you don’t know what all of them mean, you’re far from alone. Unfortunately, only having a vague understanding of what a colloquial phrase actually means doesn’t stop us fallible humans from using it in a sentence, which leads to quite a few commonly misused phrases.
Ever heard the saying, “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander?” Like most common sayings, you probably have an idea of what it means, and if someone were to use it in a sentence, you might smile and nod and figure the person is saying what’s good for one person should work for the other person too, all things being equal. But what the heck is a gander? Well, a gander is a male goose. Nowadays, we don’t qualify a goose by its gender—every geese is a goose—but that wasn’t so back in the day. This is also where the saying, ‘take a gander at this,” comes from. Geese have long necks, so taking a gander means to crane your neck or stand on your tippy-toes to look at something. 🦢
The thing about colloquialisms is they sound kind of strange to begin with since many of the phrases are decades old. While you may be able to extrapolate the meaning of the phrase, it’s easy to get the words wrong. And there are a lot of half-understood sayings out there that are commonly misused in conversation. Have you ever asked someone to take a gander at something without knowing what a gander was? Have you ever used a common phrase with only a vague sense of what it means?
No one likes to look stupid, and when we misuse a phrase and people laugh or feel compelled to correct us, that’s exactly how we feel. Let’s talk about some of the most commonly misused phrases. We’ve organized each heading so that the misused phrase comes before the correct phrase.
1. Nip it in the Butt vs. Nip it in the Bud
Many of us are not gardeners, so the saying, “nip it in the bud” lacks crucial context. We may even understand it means to stop something quickly, but what’s a bud? A ‘bud’ could be a friend or it could be a beer—but we all know what butts are. Somewhere down the line, someone heard the phrase ‘nip it in the bud’ but thought they heard ‘nip it in the butt.’ They understood the gist of what the phrase meant, so they started using “nip it in the butt” in future conversations.
But of course, how can you nip something in the butt? When you nip a bud, you stop the bud from blooming by pinching it off, thereby stopping the flower before it can exist. ‘Nip’ means to pinch, squeeze, or bite sharply, so when you say the phrase, “nip it in the butt,” you’re telling someone to pinch or bite a butt.
So the next time you want to tell someone to stop something before it’s even begun, tell them to nip it in the bud (and keep your thoughts about their butt to yourself.) 🍑
2. For All Intensive Purposes vs. For All Intents and Purposes
It’s easy to see why these phrases get confused since if you’re not focusing on enunciating each syllable, they sound pretty much the same. But while they sound similar, they actually mean different things.
‘Intensive’ refers to deep focus and concentration on one thing. Therefore, an ‘intensive purpose’ is one very focused purpose. Frodo Baggins’s intensive purpose is to destroy the one Ring. Santa Claus’s intensive purpose is to spread joy on Christmas. Larry’s intensive purpose as Chief Happiness Officer at Blue Summit Supplies is to make sure every team member is happy and fulfilled at work. An intensive purpose is a single really big goal.
‘For all intents and purposes’ means to consider something from all possible angles—every possible intent and purpose.
So, when you use the phrase, are you suggesting that you should consider the issue at hand in the context of everyone’s ultimate life goal, or are you suggesting that from all possible angles and considerations, this is the best direction to take?
3. Irregardless vs. Regardless
The word ‘irregardless’ is technically a word according to the dictionary, but it’s likely only there because so many people use it, albeit incorrectly. The dictionary evolves with the times, and as words become part of our collective colloquial language, they get added to the dictionary. For example, while it wasn’t in the dictionary, the word ‘meh’ became very popular in the 90s thanks to The Simpsons. It became such a common way to say that you felt indifferent about something that in 2008, ‘meh’ was added to the dictionary.
Regardless of the fact ‘irregardless’ doesn’t really mean anything, it’s still in the dictionary—and the word has caused controversy since the early 20th century.
While its origins are unclear, dictionary references suggest it’s probably a blend of the words irrespective and regardless. At some point in North America, some confused person blended the words together, and ‘irregardless’ was born. But the word is redundant, as the prefix ‘ir’ means ‘not,’ and the suffix ‘less’ means ‘without.’ Therefore, the word ‘irregardless’ contains a double negative.
If you’re trying to say you’re going to make a decision despite the circumstances, say regardless. But if you want to keep saying ‘irregardless’ regardless of the fact it contains a double negative, we can’t stop you.
4. I Could Care Less vs. I Couldn't Care Less
Has anyone ever told you that they could care less about what you have to say? Obviously, they’re trying to say they don’t care, but saying, “I could care less,” is actually communicating just the opposite. By saying “I could care less,” you’re saying that you do care. You care so much that you could care less because you’ve got concern to spare. At Blue Summit Supplies, we could care less about paper supplies and employee wellness and productivity—but that’s only because we care so much!
The correct phrase to communicate apathy and disinterest is “I couldn’t care less.” You have no feelings on the subject whatsoever, and there’s absolutely no room to care less.
5. An Escape Goat vs. a Scapegoat
While Escape Goat 🐐sounds like it could be your kids’ next favorite movie starring talking animals, it is not, in fact, a phrase. A scapegoat is someone who takes the majority of the blame for something, either willingly or unwillingly. How many times in your life has a sibling made you the scapegoat for something you both did, and vice versa?
Now, while scapegoat is definitely the correct phrase here, that doesn’t mean an escape goat couldn’t be useful; the next time someone tries to make you the scapegoat for something, jump on your trusty escape goat, ride him to Mexico, and don’t look back!
6. One in the Same vs. One and the Same
Let’s set the scene. You and a friend are talking about your favorite actors.
“Are you saying the same actor played both Han Solo and Indiana Jones?”
“One and the same. His name is Harrison Ford, and he is a god among men.”
‘One and the same’ is a phrase that can be used when you’re discussing something with someone, and you realize you’re talking about the same thing. ‘One in the same’ doesn’t actually mean anything. One in the same what? In where?
7. Deep-Seeded vs. Deep-Seated
This is a tricky one because while only one of the phrases is technically correct, they both do a good job of painting a clear picture and conveying the same message. While deep-seated is the grammatically correct phrase, deep-seeded also makes sense because the operative word in both phrases is ‘deep.’ Deep-seeded makes you think of a seed buried deep in the ground, whereas deep-seated suggests something is buried deep and firmly.
While both phrases imply great depth, the correct phrase is ‘deep-seated.’
8. On Accident vs. By Accident
When something happens by accident, it means it wasn’t intentional. When something happens on accident, it implies that whatever happened actually occurred on top of another accident. Of course, accidents happen, and some accidents probably happen on top of other accidents. For example, if you slip on a banana peel, that was by accident. If your coworker trips over you and lands on top of your head, that’s happening on accident.
But likely, when you say something happened ‘on accident,’ you’re not referring to a series of accidents happening one on top of the other. You’re simply trying to say that a single action was unintentional. So, the next time you try to say that something was unintentional, don’t say ‘on accident’ by accident.
9. First-come, First-serve vs. First-come, First-served
This is a simple one. If someone says “first-come, first-serve,” they are saying the first person to arrive will be the one to serve the food, and that is likely not what they mean. The phrase is actually “first-come, first-served,” as the first person to arrive will be served first.
10. Mute Point vs. Moot Point
A moot point is a piece of information that’s irrelevant to the current situation. For example, say you’re a vegetarian and your friends want to go to an excellent local burger spot because they have the best hamburgers. While the burgers are great, it’s a moot point because you don’t eat meat.
There is no such thing as a mute point… unless you point your finger at your coworker and tell them to mute their music. That could be a mute point.
But if you’re trying to say a fact is irrelevant, say it’s a moot point, not a mute point.
Have you ever misused these phrases? No judgment here! Learning is a lifelong journey. Do you have any misused phrases to add to our list?
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