I Don’t Think That Means What You Think It Means: Seven Phrases You’re Probably Misusing

One of my favorite movies of all time turned 25 last year. The Princess Bride has dozens of quotable moments, but one of my favorites is the character Vizzini and his catchphrase, “Inconceivable!”

When I’m reading or editing, every now and then I’ll run across a phrase and Inigo Montoya’s voice will pop into my head:

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

These are the most commonly misused phrases I’ve noticed. Until recently, some of them confused me, too. Get ready to feel smarter!

1. “For All Intensive Purposes”

This phrase does not make sense once you understand the definition of the word “intensive.”

in·ten·sive /inˈtensiv/ adj. concentrated on a single area or subject or into a short time; very thorough or vigorous. “She undertook an intensive Arabic course.”
synonyms: thorough, , in-depth, rigorous, exhaustive; vigorous, strenuous; concentrated, condensed, accelerated; detailed, minute, close, meticulous, methodical, careful. “An intensive search of the area”

“For all intensive purposes” is not a very useful phrase and would only apply to very specific circumstances.

Correction: “For All Intents and Purposes”

This makes much more sense. Here, you are using a prepositional phrase to set up a statement: “For all intents and purposes, electric cars are not yet practical.”

Why does for all intents and purposes for some people become for all intensive purposes? Because of a glitch in the way our brains work that causes us to hear a different set of words from the ones that were uttered. For example, my daughter Judith recently said, “I want to go to Jack in the Box.” My wife and I, who were only half listening, responded in turn with, “You want to get a Japanese boss?” and “Who wants dental floss?” When you consider how quickly my daughter’s words got garbled in her parents’ ears, it’s a miracle that for all intents and purposes hasn’t degenerated into fallen tents of porpoises.

—Charles Harrington Elster

2. “On Accident”

This is a simple case of a preposition being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I assume this mix-up developed because of the phrase “on purpose.” To keep a sentence’s structure parallel, we might say, “I deleted the essay on accident, not on purpose.” However, the preposition “on” doesn’t belong here.

Correction: “By Accident”

“I picked the wrong color by accident.”

This might sound strange to you, but “by” is the proper preposition to pair with “accident.” Linguist Leslie Barratt makes a good point:

…why on accident arose is…unclear. Obviously, on purpose may have played a role in supplying an analogical form (I didn’t break the window on purpose; I broke it on accident). But by accident and on purpose have existed for hundreds of years without one causing the other to change prepositions, and we don’t hear by purpose, so why did the change happen when it did and why did the change have the direction it did rather than the other way round (in other words, to by accident & by purpose)?

Many descriptive grammarians would argue that “on” has colloquially replaced “by.” While that may be true, it’s best to stick with “by” in formal writing.

3. “Wreck Havoc”

The word “havoc” means “widespread destruction.” If you are a superhero fighting a hurricane, you can use the phrase “wrecking havoc.” If you own a car named “Havoc” and crash it into a tree, you can say you “wrecked Havoc.” Otherwise, you’re using this phrase incorrectly and you need to stop.

Correction: “Wreak Havoc”

I think this mistake would be much less common if more people pronounced the word “wreak” correctly. “Wreak” does not rhyme with “wreck;” it rhymes with “reek.” When you wreak havoc on something, you cause widespread destruction. When you read the phrase “wreak havoc,” pronounce it correctly in your head. That will help you separate “wreck” and “wreak,” and you won’t mix them up anymore.

4. “Hunger Pains”

This is a strange one. Technically, “hunger pains” is a correct phrase, but it doesn’t mean what most people think it means. If you are experiencing physical pain because you are hungry (not discomfort; actual pain), you have hunger pains.

Correction: “Hunger Pangs”

You are most likely searching for this phrase instead. Hunger pangs are stabs of emotional or physical discomfort due to hunger. This is a much more appropriate phrase to use when you’re on a diet and can’t go back for seconds of that cheesy lasagna.

These phrases are commonly confused because “pains” and “pangs” sound very similar, especially when spoken quickly. Slow down and enunciate to make sure you’re communicating the right idea. Pay attention when you’re writing so you don’t use the wrong one.

5. “Hone In On”

hone /hōn/ verb :sharpen with a whetstone.
synonyms: sharpen, whet, strop, grind, file; polish, refine, improve, enhance, fine-tune

The word “hone” is often used figuratively to express a skill. “She honed her photography techniques during the seminar.” However, “hone” should never be used as “hone in on.” It doesn’t make sense to “sharpen in on” something.

Correction: “Home In On”

When you say you’re “homing in on” something, it means you’re approaching it. This phrase expresses the sentiment of the gibberish phrase “hone in on.”

The scientists are homing in on a solution for the energy crisis.

The twins are homing in on graduation.

Of course, “home” and “hone” sound so similar that people might not notice the mistake when you’re speaking. However, it’s quite an obvious mistake when writing and should be avoided.

6. “Nauseous”

Once you understand this mistake, it will make you laugh every time. To begin, you must understand the primary definition of nauseous.

nau·seous \ˈnȯ-shəs, ˈnȯ-zē-əs\ adj. :causing nausea or disgust: nauseating.
synonyms: disgusting, repellent, offensive

It’s almost impossible to invent a situation in which one would properly use I’m nauseous. (How often does anyone cause others to vomit?) In that unlikely case, however, say something like, I’m apparently being nauseous and making you ill; I’d better leave.

—Theodore Cheney

So, if John told you, “You look nauseous,” you might get upset with John for saying looking at you makes him want to vomit.

Of course, John would then be very confused, and for good reason. This is such a common mistake that most dictionaries include “affected with nausea” as a secondary definition. Some linguists say both definitions arose independently and are both correct. To avoid confusion, though, use two different terms.

Correction: “Nauseated”

This definition makes it clear how you are feeling and how you feel about those around you. When writing, always use “nauseated” to describe the feeling of being sick to one’s stomach.

7. “_______faced lie”

This isn’t actually a mistake, but people interchange these phrases so often that it’s useful to know the individual meanings of each. Each phrase conveys a slightly different meaning.

Barefaced Lie: William Shakespeare coined this phrase in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “The meaning of barefaced was clearly ‘without whiskers,’ which led to senses of ‘unconcealed, open,’” writes William Safire. “In time, this innocent lack of disguise took on the color of shamelessness.” So, a barefaced lie is a lie told without shame or remorse.

Baldfaced Lie: The phrase “baldfaced” dates back to the 1600s and originally referred to animals (for example, the bald eagle). Originally, “bald” meant white, not hairless. A “whitefaced” lie implies a blank, unguarded face.

Boldfaced Lie: Shakespeare coined this phrase, too, but its meaning has changed over the years. Boldfaced originally meant confident, but “that soon turned into ‘impudent,’ as confidence so often does” (Safire). A boldfaced lie is a confident lie. This phase is also used by typographers to describe bold font.

The spelling and grammar checker on your word processor probably won’t catch these mistakes, so pay close attention when writing to make sure you’re saying what you actually mean to say.

References:

Barratt, Leslie. “What Speakers Don’t Notice: Language Changes Can Sneak In.” Innovation and Continuity in Language and Communication of Different Language Cultures, ed. Rudolf Muhr (Peter Lang, 2006).

Cheney, Theodore A. Rees. Getting the Words Right: 39 Ways to Improve Your Writing, Second Ed. Writer’s Digest Books: Cincinnati, 2005.

Elster, Charles Harrington. The Accidents of Style: Good Advice on How Not to Write Badly. St. Martin’s Press: New York, 2010.

Fiske, Robert Hartwell. Robert Hartwell Fiske’s Dictionary of Unendurable English: A Compendium of Mistakes in Grammar, Usage, and Spelling with Commentary on Lexicographers and Linguists. Simon & Shuster: New York, 2011.

Safire, William. The Right Word in the Right Place at the Right Time: Wit and Wisdom from the Popular “On Language” Column in the New York Times Magazine. Simon & Schuster: New York, 2004.

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