Ten Commonly Mis-expressed Expressions


Horse and Bit

Most common expressions get passed down orally. We hear them at a young age, and they work their way into our everyday parlance. Most of us can’t remember the first time we heard expressions like, “as a matter of fact,” “by the way,” or “good riddance.” Most likely we use hundreds of such idioms on a regular basis without ever giving much thought to the oddness of their literal constructions and what we mean when we use them.

One problem with this oral tradition, however, is that eventually, someone will hear them wrong, confuse them, or pass on misheard versions. Below are ten common idiomatic expressions that are commonly mis-expressed.

1. Tow the Line

The actual expression is “toe the line.” The image that ought to be conjured is of sailors standing in formation, not the hauling in of a rope.  The origins of the expression are disputed, but the best guess is that it comes from the British Royal Navy at a time when seamen went often barefoot and were commanded to fall in for inspection by placing their toes along a line or board on the deck of a ship. Thus, to toe the line means to speak or behave in a manner dictated by a group one is affiliated with.

Because toe and tow are homophones, there’s no way of knowing if people using the expression get it right. The truth comes out only when they put it in writing.

2. Spitting Image

There’s lots of debate on this expression meaning “an uncanny likeness.”  Many have suggested that the expression was originally “spit and image” or even “splitting image,” but there is little to substantiate either. Some linguists believe it derives from “spitten image,” meaning a child so like the parent he might have been spit, or spitten, out of the parent’s mouth.

Whatever the origin and whether or not “spitting image” is a corruption of the original, it is now common and accepted as is. It probably shouldn’t even be on the list, but some insist it’s a mistake.

3. For All Intensive Purposes

This is a simple corruption. The expression is for all intents and purposes, which was originally to all intents and purposes. Intents and purposes are essentially synonyms, an intentional redundancy, or pleonasm. Still, the expression has a specific idiomatic meaning that’s not obvious from a literal reading. When something is said to be true “for all intents and purposes” this means that, while it may not be technically true, it is close enough that we may proceed as though it is. Here’s an example from The Phrase Finder:

Isaac Newton’s Laws of Motion aren’t 100% precise in describing the motion of objects that approach the speed of light. However, for a man on a horse who measures time by a pocket watch, they are, for all intents and purposes, accurate.

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4. A Doggy-Dog World

This makes me laugh, but the mistake is understandable. It’s a classic example of eggcorn. The correct idiom is “It’s a dog-eat-dog world,” meaning it’s a tough, competitive place where survival belongs to the fittest.

5. Chomping at the Bit

The bit is a metal mouthpiece used for controlling horses. Horses who are restless to run have a tendency to gnaw or bite it. Thus, if someone is anxious to get going, he is “chomping at the bit.” But the older version of the idiom is “champing at the bit.” Champ is an archaic word for biting or chewing noisily. We now more commonly use the word chomp to mean the same, so it makes sense that the idiom has changed as well. I don’t consider “chomping at the bit” to be an error so much as a reasonable modernization of the expression. Still, some people get picky about these things, so you might want to stick to the original “champing” version in your written work.

6. A Blessing in the Skies

Another funny eggcorn. The idiom, which is actually rather clear in its meaning is “a blessing in disguise.” It refers, as expected, to a fortunate circumstance that doesn’t appear to be fortunate at first glance. (If the blessing were in the skies, what good would it do us?)

7. One in the Same

The correct saying is “one and the same.” This is another intentional redundancy, or pleonasm. It simply means “the same” or “the same one.” Samuel Clemens and Mark Twain are one and the same.

8. Nip It in the Butt

Ha! I’ve heard this more than once and I always chuckle. The correct idiom here is “nip it in the bud.” It means to stop something when it is just beginning. It refers to cutting, or nipping, off flower buds before they bloom. It has nothing to do with anyone’s hind quarters.

9. You’ve Got Another Thing Coming

Originally, the full expression was “If that’s what you think, you’ve got another think coming.” It was a humorously-intended play on words. Not that idioms have to make sense, but “another think coming” makes more sense in this context than “another thing coming.” Still, it’s easy to see how the mistake was made and repeated.

10. A Tough Road to Hoe

It’s “a tough row to hoe.” Farmers hoe rows in fields intended for crops. Nobody in their right mind takes a hoe to a road.

The expression refers to rough going or hard work ahead: With all the strong teams in the NFC East this year, the Eagles have a tough row to hoe to return to the playoffs.


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About the Author

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

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  2. Wendy

    Interesting, about the sailors and their toes – I always thought it referred to boxing, when the contestants were to “toe the line” at the start of the fight.

    I’m not sure I get number 9. In the context where I would use it, saying “you have another think coming” wouldn’t make sense. Perhaps the phrase has been altered to fit the usage rather than from being misheard.

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko10-02-2012

      It almost doesn’t matter what expression you research, Wendy, you are bound to find a number of plausible but unproven explanations. Linguists jokingly refer to them as etymythologies.

      In what context would you use “you’ve got another thing/think coming”? The change from the original “think” to “thing” broadens its meaning, which probably explains why you would find it hard to use “think” in context.

      I use it like this, typically: “If you think (Presidential Candidate X) will be able to fix the mess we’re in, you’ve got another think coming.”

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