The amount of Web content has grown exponentially in recent years, much of it posted without ever having passed in front of a proofreader's eyes. That's according to Knowingly CEO Byron Reese, whose new tool, Correctica, recently found scads of errors even on reputable websites operated by big guns such as the Mayo Clinic, Harvard, and The New York Times. Reese's list of the top 20 grammatical errors people commonly make was one of Inc.'s most popular columns last month, with readers sharing the story on social media nearly 90,000 times and offering plenty of their own pet peeves regarding how others use the English language.
Why are people so highly interested in grammar and vocabulary? While Reese says he doesn't know the exact reason, people have labored over the intricacies of language for millennia and usually consider themselves experts in their native tongue. "Lists like these are kind of like pop tests on language. People read them and grade themselves," Reese says. "If they find a phrase they have been using incorrectly, they are glad they read the list. If they don't find one, then they get to feel a little proud of themselves."
Want to assess your wordsmithing skill? Check out Reese's list of 21 more improperly used idioms Correctica catches all the time. Be sure to note that his version in bold is the incorrect phrase.
1. Beckon call
This phrase should always be "beck and call." Beck is actually a noun that stems from the word beckon. When you say that you're at someone's beck and call, you're saying that you're immediately available, whether they beckon or call.
2. Boldface lie
The term bald-face means shameless, deliberate, and unashamed. When someone tells a bald-faced lie, they are openly and shamelessly lying. Another perfectly acceptable variant of this phrase is a "barefaced lie," which again refers to a blatant lie.
3. Risk adverse
"Risk aversion" comes from the financial concept of someone not wanting to take a risk on an investment or purchase that may or may not be worthwhile. Adverse means hostile or confrontational, while averse means a strong sense of dislike or opposition. Someone who is "risk averse" doesn't like risks.
4. Suppose to
This common error is easy to make. To "suppose" means to assume or to believe. The phrase "supposed to" means that you are required to do something. While the incorrect version of this phrase is accepted in some grammarian circles, the better choice for professional and formal writing and speaking is "supposed to."
5. Coming down the pipe
While it may make sense for something to come down a pipe, this idiom is actually "coming down the pike." A pike refers to the turnpike, otherwise known as a highway.
6. Chock it up
To "chalk it up" comes from keeping score on a chalkboard. To chalk something up means to attribute it to a particular cause.
7. Through the ringer
A wringer is an old-fashioned hand-cranked tool used to press water out of clothes. The phrase "through the wringer" means to give someone a hard time or to subject that person to a difficult or rigorous process.
8. Flaunt the law
To "flaunt" means to show off or to draw attention to. To "flaunt the law" would mean to display it, but to "flout the law" is a commonly used phrase that means to break or ignore the law shamelessly.
9. Full proof
Foolproof refers to something so simple or straightforward that it cannot go wrong or even a fool couldn't mess it up.
10. Front in center
This phrase should read "front and center," emphasizing that something or someone is in a prominent or obvious position.
11. Given free reign
Reign means control or sovereignty, so it seems to make sense to say someone is "given free reign." However, the actual phrase derives from the reins that are used to control a horse, so in its correct form, the phrase reads "given free rein."
12. Low and behind
This phrase is an incorrectly shortened version of "look and behold." The word lo comes from look, making "lo and behold" the proper phrase.
13. Nip it in the butt
To "nip" means to pinch or to bite. Unless you intend to bite something in the butt, you should be saying "nip it in the bud," which refers to putting an end to a flower bud before it can bloom. "Nip it in the bud" means to put an end to something before it gets worse.
14. Once and a while
In this phrase, while refers to a period of time. "Once in a while" means you are doing something once in a period of time. The phrase "once in a while" means occasionally, or every now and then.
15. By a hair's breath
The phrase "by a hair's breadth" means by a very small amount. A breadth is a range or a scope, so when something is accomplished by a hair's breadth, it happens on a very small scale. For example, someone avoids a fatal car accident by a hair's breadth.
16. Tie me over
Unless you want someone to tie you over a truck, a donkey, a bridge (you get the picture), you should be saying "tide me over." To "tide someone over" means to sustain him or her through a difficult time. The phrase is derived from the tide of the sea, which can move ships to a new location when the wind will not.
17. Tow the line
To "toe the line" means to do what you are expected to do or to follow the rules. It is derived from runners who put their toe to the line before starting a race.
18. Working progress
This is a phrase that is easily mistook. A "work in progress" is a project that is still being developed, or something that is still being worked on.
19. Worse case scenario
Worse is a comparative word, meaning that it is used to compare two things--no more, no less. Worst, however, is a superlative adjective, meaning that it is used when comparing three or more things. This phrase should be "worst-case scenario," in reference to something that is the poorest outcome of all possible scenarios.
20. Chalk full
The origins of the term chock-full are contested. It means to be full to the brim. Some believe that chock comes from the Old English word for cheek. Chock-full would then mean mouthful. Whether or not this theory is true, it is a helpful way to remember the term!
21. Throws of passion
A throe is a sharp attack of emotion. To be in the "throes of passion" means to be totally consumed by something.
Keep in mind that these errors often slip by spell-checker. So if you're worried about making similar mistakes, you can run things like your resume, anything you want to publicly post, and the content of important emails through Correctica's "Proof It Free" tool.
What other written or spoken errors drive you nuts?