Eight Phrases We Say or Write That Aren’t Correct

The English language is rich with words and phrases with a variety of nuances. The problem is that we sometimes write or say some of them incorrectly. As I continue my grammar cop theme from yesterday, I want to feature eight phrases that are often used incorrectly:

  1. “I am nauseous.” That little sentence phrase literally means that you make other people sick. The correct usage is “I am nauseated.” Of course, I sometimes say, “I am nauseous” because I know I make some people sick.
  2. “PIN number.” The phrase is redundant since PIN means “personal identification number.” When you therefore say “PIN number” you are saying “personal identification number number.”
  3. “To wreck havoc.” “Havoc” means “devastation.” So why would you wreck something that is already devastated? Correct usage is “wreak havoc” which means to “inflict devastation.”
  4. “Free reign.” When we use that spelling of the word, we seem to be talking about a monarchy that is free to do what it pleases. The correct spelling is “free rein.” It refers to loosing the grip of a horse’s reins so that the horse has more control over his action. We thus use it to mean that someone has been given more freedom to act.
  5. “Take a raincheck.” This phrase is used so much that it has become generally accepted as correct in the way we have changed it. We use it today to mean that we are postponing something to a later date. Its original intent was exclusively for baseball. If a game was rained out, you were given a “raincheck,” a voucher for admission to a future game.
  6. “If you think that, you have another thing coming.” The original phrase, which admittedly sounds weird today, was “If you think that, you have another think coming.” It meant that you should rethink what’s on your mind.
  7. “Fit as a fiddle.” The common meaning of the phrase today implies good physical health and condition. The original intent of “fit,” dating back to at least the 19th century, was “suitable.” I’m still uncertain where the fiddle fits in this phrase (pun intended).
  8. “The proof is in the pudding.” This phrase is one that can make you scratch your head. How does pudding prove anything? Go back a couple of centuries and you would hear people say, “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.”  The only way you can discover if the pudding is good is to eat it. In other words, if you want to prove something, you have to take action. We have since truncated the phrase to where it makes little sense.

I know I have made your life richer and more meaningful with my latest grammar cop entry. What strange phrases would you like to add?


  1. says

    A couple of words that get erroneously interchanged in phrases:
    Farther/further – Both these words mean “more far.”
    Farther means “more far” in terms that can be measured.
    Further refers to more abstract differences, like the difference between two people’s points of view.

  2. Ed Funderburk says

    Thanks, Thom — This is great! I love anything that is grammar related.
    Like me, you must be a fan of Richard Lederer. If not, you would enjoy his books.

  3. Thayer Wallace says

    One of my pet peeves is when people say, “I could care less.” They mean this to say that they “couldn’t care less.” If they could care less it would mean that they do in fact care at least a little.

  4. Cynthia says

    Thanks for the informative post. One I see used frequently, and just saw today in my local paper, is the phrase “First Annual.” My high school journalism teacher made it very clear to us that you should not call an event “annual” that has never happened before.

  5. Jason says

    One phrase I hear often is, “very unique.” Something cannot be very unique because unique means “one of a kind.” There’s no such thing as something that is very one of a kind. It’s either one of a kind or it’s not unique.

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