The Correct Way To Say Commonly Confused Idioms

Even celebs get these wrong ...

Idioms are great … until they’re not. When properly used, these sayings can pepper our speech with personality and color our conversations. While they don’t translate literally, their meaning is usually well understood—if they’re used correctly.

When idioms are misused, quite a bit can be lost in translation, leaving the audience scratching their heads. A gaffe between friends is one thing, but what about when the whole world is listening?

One New Year’s Eve, former President Barack Obama slipped up when he said if people thought any government spending cuts wouldn’t be coming with tax increases, “then they’ve got another thing coming.” The thing is … that’s not the correct way to say that idiom!

Scroll through for the right way to say that idiom as well as some of the other most common misused idioms. Have you ever gotten these wrong?

WATCH: Can You Correct These Idioms?

"For all intensive purposes"

If it’s not “for all intensive purposes,” then what is it?

The two phrases might sound incredibly similar, but your grammar-correcting friend will be quick to point out that the correct idiom is for all intents and purposes. It’s used to convey “for all practical purposes” or “virtually.” The next time this comes up in conversation, take the opportunity to teach someone a fun new term: eggcorn.

"Nip it in the butt"

This is a reference to gardening. If a plant is nipped in the bud, it doesn’t grow. Because some plants grow best when nipped, the Grammarist points out you could also use this idiom to refer to a process that’s halted “for the sake of a greater good.” Take your pick; just say it correctly.

"One in the same"

Here’s another idiom that sounds similar, but if you write out the two versions, you will realize they are not one and the same. When you use this idiom, you’re emphasizing the sameness. This error is everywhere. Here’s one real-world example: “It appears that there is confusion among consumers as to the difference between cowpeas and Southern peas. The answer is simple; there are no differences, they are one in the same.” This is incorrect; the peas should be one and also the same.

"Should/Could/Would Of"

When speaking or writing quickly, of may come naturally, but sadly it is incorrect. The correct verbs are should have, could have, and would have. When have is used in this context, it sounds like of. As your favorite schoolteacher might point out, the of is unstressed. And that’s why we all should have used have!

"You've got another thing coming"

This was a new one, even for us.

The actual phrase you’ve got another think coming can be traced back to an old-fashioned idiom, If that’s what you think, you’ve got another think coming. This idiom is intentionally ungrammatical, so modern users find it more natural to land on “another thing.” Even President Obama has made the mistake.

"Extract revenge"

The use of exact as a verb meaning to demand or request something is lesser known than the verb extract, but the former is still correct. Because exact is rarely used this way, extract often takes its place in this phrase. The next time you want to get retribution, you know the exact way to do it.

"I could care less"

Think about this one. If you COULD care less, there is an opportunity for you to care less about the subject at hand. This controversial (and logically flawed) American variant entered popular usage in the 1960s. What you’re actually trying to say is that you CANNOT care less, hence the couldn’t. Etymologists suggest that I could care less emerged as a sarcastic variant employing Yiddish humor. (You can read more here.)

"Each one worse than the next"

Here’s another idiom that makes no sense if you pause to think about the meaning of the words. You can’t say something is worse than the next because you don’t know what the next one will be. But you do know what the last thing before it was. The correct idiom is each one worse than the last. Here’s one example of its incorrect use: “The Tigers have looked quite good at home, but on the road? It’s been one disaster after another, each one worse than the next.”

The games are progressively getting worse, so they are worse than the last.

"Statue of limitations"

Can we have a statue erected for the dictionary? No?

No statues in this idiom either. The phrase refers to the statute, or law in question. If you need help remembering this one, you’re not alone. Seinfeld‘s Kramer refused to call it a statute, preferring even sculpture of limitations to the correct phrase.

"A complete 360"

You can take a complete 360-degree view of a house or a car, for example, and you can do a complete 360-degree flip. But to say you’ve made a complete 360-degree change only confuses the issue: what exactly has changed?

Pull out your protractors. If you turn 360 degrees, you’re back where you started. Turn 180 degrees and you’ve got a new perspective on life. You should say, “a complete 180.”

"It's a doggy dog world"

A doggy dog world would be populated by billions of yippy Yorkies and Pomeranians. Adorable and annoying, but is that what the saying It’s a doggy dog world actually means? Nope. Because that’s not the saying!

This idiom suffers in the slurring of words, but the correct phrase dog eat dog refers to when everyone is looking out for themselves. Kind of like if dogs start fighting with each other to get to that sweet, sweet bone.

"First-come, first-serve"

This tricky one just comes down to verb tense, but c’mon. We’re the dictionary; we’re allowed to be a little pedantic.

When using the idiom meaning the first one to arrive is served first, remember that it’s past tense: first come, first served. The full phrase could be written out as the first to come will be the first to be served, and this version helps clarify the need for the past tense.

"Wet your appetite"

You’ll never know the difference here unless you’re spelling it, but the correct word is whet, which means “to sharpen or stimulate.” Just like your appetite when you start smelling those dinner aromas. Interestingly, whet can also mean “to take an appetizer.” Let your common sense guide you on this one: would you ever want to wet an appetite? We didn’t really think so.

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