English is rich in idioms whose overall meaning may not be guessable from the meanings of the words that make up the expression—classic examples are "kick the bucket" (die) or "take a powder" (depart hastily). In addition, spoken English, like all other languages, has instances of ambiguity that arise from pronunciations that mask word divisions or transform speech sounds.

Finally, speakers are prone to misinterpret an expression for the foregoing or for other reasons and then incorporate the incorrect usage into their lexicons. When such misusages become widespread, the question that arises is whether the new and nominally incorrect version of an expression should be regarded as acceptable.

Old school prescriptivism says no, no, no! This school, whose faculty consists of language police, take it upon themselves to draw attention to such errors and correct them, often in a scolding and withering tone. A more moderate approach is that of the contemporary descriptivist school, whose approach is to listen to what people say, determine what they mean by it, and then declare (or concede) that things mean what a plurality or majority of speakers think they mean—regardless of what they may have formerly meant.

Now as I approach my dotage I am increasingly inclined toward the modern school, though there are cases where I cannot suppress an urge to reach for my old policeman's cap. Let's look at a few examples.

A couple of years ago I was aghast to discover that the state of Colorado, where I live, had enshrined in an official form an incorrect version of a common idiom "one and the same" (which means, simply "the same").

The purpose of the form is to affirm officially that two different names are associated with the same person or company. It's not hard to imagine how such an error could arise. People hear the expression, never having seen it written. In ordinary, casual American pronunciation, there is no difference between "one and the same" and "one in the same": the vowel of 'and' becomes a schwa, its 'd' is assimilated, so 'and' and 'in' are indistinguishable. Ah, but does the original and correct expression make any more sense than the nominally incorrect one? That's debatable.

In the case of this official form (which, I should note, has now been amended to "one and the same"), clearly no one in the production line was familiar with the canonical form of the idiom. This error comes up in my students' writing from time to time. I correct it, though without donning my old cop hat. There is, however, another case where "and" and "in" are confused that requires fully armed enforcement: it's "case in point," not "case and point."

What expression would you use in order to intimate to someone, perhaps vehemently, that they have been laboring under a delusion or serious misapprehension that they are soon to be disabused of? If you're a speaker of British English you might say "you've got another think coming" and you'd be in the comfortable majority of edited literature in so speaking, as the Google Books Ngram Viewer shows:

But if you're an American speaker, you would probably say "you've got another thing coming," and you could be as confident as your British cousin that you'd got it right. You could point to evidence in a web corpus of contemporary English, in which "thing" outnumbers "think" in this expression by two to one.

Which form is correct? "Got another think coming" is earlier, but I don't think that makes it uniquely correct. They're both correct, both easily parsable by using conventional meanings of words, and in many instances, identically pronounced: there's no appreciable difference between /θɪŋk ˈkʌmɪŋ/ and /θɪŋ ˈkʌmɪŋ/ in ordinary speech.

There's a similar split between British and American usage in the semantically identical expressions "not by a long chalk" and "not by a long shot". Competition in print versions of the expression had frequent reversals in the 19th century, as the NGram below shows, but for this expression American English hegemony has clearly won the day:

Again here, there is no basis for regarding one expression as correct and the other not: they are merely variants, whose pronunciation in casual speech differs by only one phoneme: terminal /t/ as opposed to terminal /k/. Do you like your final plosive velar or alveolar?

Here endeth my tolerance for common misinterpretations of English expressions. In several other cases where misunderstanding arises through imperfect construal, hearing, or pronunciation, it strikes me that a modicum of enforcement makes sense to prevent tendencies that would promote the language becoming an arbitrary jumble. For example:

  • Though it does yet threaten the canonical (if rather heavy-handed) "for all intents and purposes," I cannot make room in my lexicon for "for all intensive purposes". The latter, incorrect variant introduces the peculiar idea of intensity into the expression, which does not own it in the original.
  • It's fine to jive with anyone you like, whether you mean by that "dance to jive music" or "speak jive", but if you wish declare that two things "are compatible, similar or consistent; coincide in their characteristics", please be careful that they do not jive with each other; they jibe.
  • When you do not have at hand ideal equipment for accomplishing a task, you "make do" with what you have. You do not "make due," an expression that cannot be forced into any logical meaning on the basis of its constituents. The same is true of correct "without further ado" and incorrect "without further adieu". There is no conceivable sense in the latter.
  • The word peak is many times more frequent as a noun than a verb, and as a verb, it is rarely used transitively. In fact its most frequent transitive use is its misuse in expressions like "peak someone's interest/curiosity," where the verb wanted is actually pique—a verb that, sadly, has few other transitive jobs than its required appearance in this expression. So forgive all those who make this common error, while correcting them gently; a generation from now, "pique" may be viewed as the archaic form of this expression; there is no compelling reason aside from a reverence for tradition to insist on "pique", especially when "peak" means "cause to come to a maximum."
  • "Baited breath" is something you never want to experience. This would be breath capable of catching a fish. "Bated breath" (a reduction of "abated breath") is part of the idiom "with bated breath", which means "with anxious anticipation".

This column will not be complete until at least one old-school gendarme disagrees with me vehemently, so please have at it in the comments section below!

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Friday May 6th 2016, 1:39 PM
Comment by: The Dormouse Awakes (Austin, TX)
I'm in 100% agreement! Thank you for your delightful observations.
Friday May 6th 2016, 1:52 PM
Comment by: Pat
Thank you for pointing this out! I've been going around saying "jive" when I meant "jibe." Now that really doesn't jibe!
Friday May 6th 2016, 2:25 PM
Comment by: Wood F.
By enlarge, I'm tempted to reply in a fit of peak!
Friday May 6th 2016, 3:57 PM
Comment by: Alice K. (Nekoosa, WI)
I have a number of pet peeves, but my current irritant is the use of "therz" when expressing numbers. High on my list is Drew Carey, who repeatedly says, "Therz five numbers in the price of the car," or "Therz three items over there." I am sure he wouldn't say "there is five," but the contraction seems to be all-purpose for him. I have noticed this misuse of the contraction in our local newspaper, even when not giving a direct quote. People in publishing should know better.
Friday May 6th 2016, 8:41 PM
Comment by: Kimberly C.
Thanks for a fun and informative article. I, too, have labored under the false impression that things may or may not “jive” with one another - guess I had another think coming!

My own temptations for donning the policeman's hat include the substitution of the phrase “flush out” for “flesh out” when speaking of concepts or rough ideas. As a designer, I’ve bitten my tongue when bosses and clients talked about taking sketches to the next level by “flushing them out.” Were the ideas execrable, or simply hiding in the bushes? ;-)
Friday May 6th 2016, 11:24 PM
Comment by: Dana B.
Well how about all those mute points people seem to keep making? Or the fact that it takes awhile for everyone to get orientated to a new point of view? One of my all time favorites, maybe it's a Midwest thing, is '...do you want to come with?"
Saturday May 7th 2016, 6:06 AM
Comment by: Geoffrey BH (Wallington, Surrey United Kingdom)
On reflection, I wonder if "without further adieu" could be held to mean "left upon the moment", i.e. without further farewell?
Saturday May 7th 2016, 8:03 AM
Comment by: Pamela L.
I must be an atypical American. I've always said "you have another think coming." I've never even been to England so didn't get it there.
Saturday May 7th 2016, 2:45 PM
Comment by: William W. (San Angelo, TX)
Buy the weigh, grate right-up!
Sunday May 8th 2016, 6:37 PM
Comment by: Ellen M.
Interesting that New Wave of British Heavy Metal band Judas Priest's 1982 hit uses the American form: "You've Got Another Thing Comin'" The band members originated in Birmingham, UK, but the usage may reflect Rob Halford's drama school background. Note the timing, on the rising wave of adoption of the "Thing" formation. Cause or effect?
Monday May 9th 2016, 9:55 PM
Comment by: Dan F. (Minneapolis, MN)
How about "I could care less about…" The last several years I've been hearing it more and more. It says the opposite of "I couldn't care less about…" which is I think what most people mean.
For me, I could care less.
Monday May 9th 2016, 11:17 PM
Comment by: Dan F. (Minneapolis, MN)
Ooooo, oooooooo! Another one!
Because of hearing loss, I use captioning on the TV. So I'm especially aware of some of these.
How about someone "honing in" on a solution? Or, "honing in" on the target? Maybe they're talking about honing pigeons?
Saturday May 14th 2016, 9:36 AM
Comment by: Naomi B.
Yes, please won't someone mention pawn off? My dad was an amateur magician for 70 years, and when his illusion called for quietly ridding himself of something in his hand he PALMED it off. And one more irritant I hear frequently on national TV news, It begs the question, when in fact the news readers mean the very opposite, It raises the question.

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