16 Phrases Most People Say Wrong in English (and How to Get Them Right)
You want to talk just like a native English speaker, right? Well, remember they make mistakes, too—especially with certain well known phrases.
So while you can learn a lot by imitating (copying) native English speakers, there are some phrases you need to be careful with.
To help you out, we’ve put together this list of 16 common English phrases that people use incorrectly. Learn these phrases, and you could soon be correcting your native English-speaking friends!
- 1. “I couldn’t care less” — not “I could care less”
- 2. “For all intents and purposes” — not “for all intensive purposes”
- 3. “Could have/should have” — not “could of/should of”
- 4. “On purpose/by accident” — not “by purpose/on accident”
- 5. “Nipped in the bud” — not “nipped it in the butt”
- 6. “You have another think coming” — not “you have another thing coming”
- 7. “Sleight of hand” — not “slight of hand”
- 8. “One and the same” — not “one in the same”
- 9. “Whet your appetite” — not “wet your appetite”
- 10. “Take the fifth” — not “plead the Fifth”
- 11. “[X] and me/[X] and I” — not “[X] and myself”
- 12. “Waiting for” — not “waiting on”
- 13. “I’m giving you leeway” — not “I’m giving you leadway”
- 14. “Deep-seated” — not “deep-seeded”
- 15. “Case in point” — not “case and point”
- 16. “Wreak havoc” — not “wreck havoc”
- Why English Idioms and Clichés Are Often Said Wrong
- And One More Thing...
1. “I couldn’t care less” — not “I could care less”
When you say “I couldn’t care less,” you’re saying you really, really don’t care. You care so little, that you could not care any less.
But when people confuse this and say “I could care less,” they’re actually saying the opposite. If you could care less, then you still care, right?
2. “For all intents and purposes” — not “for all intensive purposes”
The phrase “for all intents and purposes” means for every practical or important reason. If your coat gets a big hole in it, you might say that “This coat is, for all intents and purposes, ruined.”
When you hear someone say this phrase out loud though, it does sound a bit like “for all intensive purposes.” It even kind of makes sense—you could be saying “all the major reasons.” Still, this is the wrong way to say the phrase.
3. “Could have/should have” — not “could of/should of”
This is another case of mishearing a phrase. Could have, would have and should have are all modal verbs which are often spoken aloud as contractions: could’ve, would’ve, should’ve. When someone says “could’ve” out loud, it might sound like they’re saying “could of.”
But the correct way to write these three is could have, would have and should have.
These kinds of errors are common when you’re relying only on your listening skills. Prevent these kinds of misunderstandings by using a video- and subtitle-based English learning program like FluentU.
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4. “On purpose/by accident” — not “by purpose/on accident”
There is no specific rule that says either of these are correct. However, the more widely accepted version of the phrases are “on purpose” and “by accident.” It’s possible that “on accident” came about because it’s the opposite of “on purpose,” so people used the same form.
The phrase “on purpose” has become an idiom and can be traced back to as early as Shakespeare. If you don’t care about getting wet in the rain, you can say, “I left my umbrella at home on purpose.”
The phrase “by accident” can be explained if you expand the phrase. If you didn’t mean to trip, then you trip “by way of an” accident. That’s why you would say, “I tripped by accident.”
5. “Nipped in the bud” — not “nipped it in the butt”
Nipping a problem in the bud means solving it before it becomes a serious issue. The phrase comes from the fact that a bud is a young plant, and nipping it (pinching it off) would prevent it from blooming.
The phrase is often misheard as “Nipped it in the butt,” which would mean that you bit that problem on its behind (which might be one way to deal with it, I suppose).
6. “You have another think coming” — not “you have another thing coming”
Hearing the full phrase helps a lot in this case of misheard phrase confusion: “If that’s what you think, then you have another think coming.”
The original phrase is not grammatically correct, but it’s a way of saying that someone’s opinion is incorrect. Many people disagree on this phrase, though, so you might hear either way used in conversation.
7. “Sleight of hand” — not “slight of hand”
Magicians use sleights of hand when they’re performing their magic. They move their hands so quickly and skillfully that you don’t see the trick happen. As an idiom it means using trickery or deceit.
Many people misspell the phrase by using the word “slight,” which means something small or an insult. But “sleight” is the correct word to use here. It means to be quick and smart, usually with the purpose of deceiving (tricking) someone.
8. “One and the same” — not “one in the same”
To put an emphasis on the fact that two things are actually identical or the same thing, you can use the phrase “one and the same.” For example, “The authors Stephen King and Richard Bachman are one and the same.”
“One in the same” is just a misheard form of the phrase.
9. “Whet your appetite” — not “wet your appetite”
To whet your appetite means to entice, or to get someone interested in something. You might whet the appetite of someone looking for a house by showing them pictures of the home you’re selling.
People often mishear the phrase as “wet your appetite” which makes sense in a way. When you’re hungry and you smell something delicious, the inside of your mouth does get wet. But the correct verb is “whet,” which is an old word that means to sharpen.
You do, however, wet your whistle (that is, have a drink).
10. “Take the fifth” — not “plead the Fifth”
If you’ve ever watched an American crime drama, you might have heard the phrase “I plead the fifth!” This comes from the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution of America. Specifically, it’s from the part that says you have the right not to answer a question if the answer might make you look guilty.
Unlike in the movies, though, in a real courtroom you would not plead the fifth; you would take the fifth. So if someone asks you who ate the last cookie, you could say, “I take the fifth!” which, of course, just makes you look guilty.
The word “plea” means a request, usually of an emotional kind. You can “plead to be allowed to retake a test you failed,” or “make a plea for a retake.” In a courtroom, the plea is the statement someone makes at the start of a trial: “I plead guilty” or “I plead not guilty.”
11. “[X] and me/[X] and I” — not “[X] and myself”
One confusing part of English grammar is when to say “[some person] and I” versus “me and [some person].” To avoid using either, some people have started saying, “[some person] and myself.” This is becoming more popular, but it’s not correct! Luckily it’s easy to learn which phrase to use, since this is important.
A sentence like “Sam and I went to the park” is actually two sentences put together to save time and sound better. If you separate the two parts, it would look like this: “Sam went to the park. I also went to the park.”
Whenever you’re not sure which pronoun to use in a sentence, just separate the sentence into two.
For example, “The photographer took a picture of Sam and [?].” To figure out which word to use (“me” or “I”), let’s split it into two sentences:
The photographer took a picture of Sam. The photographer took a picture of me.
So the correct phrase is, “The photographer took a picture of Sam and me.”
12. “Waiting for” — not “waiting on”
When someone asks you why you’re standing around doing nothing, you would tell them that you’re “waiting for my friend.” When you’re working in a restaurant as a waiter/waitress and your friend is a customer, only then can you say you’re “waiting on my friend.” The two phrases don’t mean the same thing, but people often use “waiting on” when they really mean “waiting for.”
Just remember that if you say that you’re “waiting on a friend,” it means you’re serving your friend—which is probably not what you mean.
13. “I’m giving you leeway” — not “I’m giving you leadway”
This nautical metaphor, “giving leeway,” means an acceptable amount of deviation from given directions. For example, if your boss asks you for a report on Friday and you don’t turn it in until Monday, when the report is actually needed.
It comes from the fact that ships turn slowly. So if your captain says “due north!” and it takes an hour to get the ship to turn north, that’s okay.
14. “Deep-seated” — not “deep-seeded”
“Deep seated” means that something is firmly in place. For example, a deep-seated belief can be one that you’ve had since childhood and it’s never changed.
“Deep-seeded” would refer to a plant seed planted deeply in the ground, which is similar, but a totally different metaphor.
15. “Case in point” — not “case and point”
The error in “case in point” seems to be the result of simply mishearing the phrase. After all, “in” and “and” sound very similar in spoken English.
The phrase means that you’re giving an example to try to make a point.
16. “Wreak havoc” — not “wreck havoc”
“Wreck” means to destroy. But “wreaking havoc” means something far more sinister and organized. It means to spread chaos and destruction on a large scale, which can cause more widespread issues in the future.
Destroying is one thing—planning and fostering future destruction could be considered even worse.
Why English Idioms and Clichés Are Often Said Wrong
When words are strung together in a way that can be used often, that’s called a phrase. Some phrases are easy to use and understand, while others are a bit confusing.
Idioms are phrases that might not make sense on their own, but which have a specific meaning. For example, if “it’s raining cats and dogs,” it’s not actually raining down animals—it’s just raining very hard.
Clichés are sayings that are used so often that they become overused. If you use a cliché, the phrase isn’t original or unique. These are phrases like “happily ever after,” “time will tell” and “brave as a lion.” Some idioms have also become clichés from too much use.
Over time, clichés and idioms are repeated over and over by different people. Sometimes along the way, some of the words or meanings become changed, and people end up using the wrong phrase.
Remember that even if everyone says a phrase in a certain way, that does not always mean it’s the right way to use it.
The next time you want to use any of these 16 English phrases in conversation, now you’ll know how to use them correctly!
And One More Thing...
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