Common English Mistakes: Tricky Phrases

English has a wide range of phrases and idioms that pop up frequently in day-to-day conversations. Yet many of these expressions are responsible for some very common English mistakes in both their written and spoken forms. This is usually because of tricky homophones that cause trouble for the writer or speaker (homophones are words that sound the same but which have different meanings or spellings, like new and knew).

These types of mistakes can be very embarrassing to make for anybody. The good news is that they’re also very easy to avoid. Read through the list of common phrases below to learn how to use each of them correctly and in the right situations.

1. Tow the line

The phrase “toe the line” means to follow the rules and to comply with what you’re told to do. The incorrect use of “tow” instead of “toe” is easy to avoid if you remember that the phrase originates from runners who line up behind starting lines for a race and who aren’t allowed to have their toes cross those lines before the race begins.

Correct phrase: Toe the line


2. Make due

The word “due” means “owed” or “deserving.” In contrast, the similar-sounding “do” means to carry out an action. Since the phrase as a whole is used to express that a person is going to manage with what they have available, it is clear that the word we need to use is “do” to indicate their taking action.

Correct phrase: Make do


3. Peak one’s interest

To “pique” means to stimulate one’s interest or curiosity. This causes trouble for a lot of people because it sounds the same as “peak,” which suggests that someone’s interest was raised as high as it can go.

Correct phrase: Pique one’s interest


4. Could care less

This is a very common mistake in both written and spoken English. By saying that you “could care less” about something means that you still care about it to some extent. The correct wording is that one “could not care less,” because this conveys that you do not care about it at all.

Correct phrase: Couldn’t care less


5. Shoe-in

A “shoo-in” is a mainly North American phrase that means that something is a sure winner (to “shoo” something means to drive it in a particular direction). Unfortunately, “shoo” sounds just like “shoe,” which is where the mistake creeps in.

Correct phrase: Shoo-in


6. Wet one’s appetite

To “whet” means to stimulate one’s interest or appetite. This makes a lot more sense than “wet,” which means to cover something in a liquid.

Correct phrase: Whet one’s appetite


7. A mute point

The word “mute” means “silent,” which would make this idiom mean “a silent point.” However, this is almost the opposite of the correct meaning. A “moot point” actually means one that is open to debate. To get this right, it helps to remember that “mute” and “moot” aren’t pronounced the same way: “mute” has a myuu sound, whereas “moot” has a moo sound.

Correct phrase: A moot point


8. Do diligence

“Due diligence” is a very common business term. It means that someone will take all the reasonable steps they can to avoid committing an offence (especially when buying or selling something). However, “due” often gets mistakenly switched with its homophone “do.”

Correct phrase: Due diligence


9. Throws of passion

To “throw” something means to hurl it through the air. However, the lesser-known word “throes” means an intense (usually intangible) struggle of some sort. So, for someone to be in the “throes of passion” means for them to be intensely consumed by their emotions.

Correct phrase: Throes of passion


10. Deep-seeded

We plant seeds in the ground, so it’s easy to see why so many people use “deep-seeded” to describe something that is firmly established. However, the correct wording is “deep-seated” (which can be used the same way as “deep-rooted”).

Correct phrase: Deep-seated


11. Hot water heater

For some reason, a lot of people like to add an extra adjective into this phrase to describe the temperature of the water. However, this often causes the description to be illogical, since the heater isn’t actually warming hot water. To improve your English, rather keep things simple and just call this device what it is: a water heater.

Correct phrase: Water heater


12. Unthaw

To “thaw” something means to warm it up. However, a common North American quirk is to use the word “unthaw” to say the exact same thing. This habit is best avoided, since it isn’t the most logical use of English around (wouldn’t “unthawing” something really mean to freeze it again?).

Correct phrase: Thaw


13. Through the ringer

A “wringer” is an old device that is used for wringing water out of clothes. The idiom thus means that someone is put through a difficult or trying situation. However, many people aren’t too familiar with wringers anymore, so they confuse the word with “ringer” (since the spelling matches its pronunciation).

Correct phrase: Through the wringer


14. Jive with the facts

In North American English, to “jive” can mean to mislead or deceive other people. However, this is the opposite of what the idiom is supposed to mean. This is because the similarly sounding word “jibe” means to be in accordance with something. As a result, for something to “jibe with the facts” really means for it to be in agreement with them.

Correct phrase: Jibe with the facts


15. Per say

This Latin phrase is correctly spelled “per se” and means “by or in itself.” For example: “That is not a problem per se, but it could pose challenges.” This is the same as saying the following: “That is not a problem by or in itself, but it could pose challenges.”

Correct phrase: Per se

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