Believe it or not, even native English speakers get common English phrases wrong from time to time. It usually stems from something they learned incorrectly during childhood and they have carried the mistake through to adulthood. This happens quite frequently with common phrases that we hear so often that our mind finishes the phrase automatically and we don’t pay attention to the details of exactly what is being said.
Here are some phrases that even native English speakers get wrong! Practice them yourself and maybe you’ll be able to correct a native speaker someday…
Play it by ear
What people think it is: Play it by year
This is one of our most common English phrases I definitely carried into adulthood and still can’t really shake, unfortunately. The real phrase is play it by ear and means that you’ll see how things go and make a decision about what to do at a later point.
Play it by ear comes from very talented musicians hearing a piece of music played and then being able to replicate that music without reading notes written down. They’re playing the piece based on what they have heard in their ear.
While playing something “by year” may seem to make sense time-wise, think of those hard-working musicians instead!
What people think it is: Escape goat
This one makes me chuckle and I really wish that “escape goat” was the actual phrase! Unfortunately, the phrase is a scapegoat, or a person who is blamed for the mistakes or crimes of someone else. (Do you see how “escape goat” would make sense here and is so funny?)
For example, if I was to rob a bank, but was able to successfully blame this crime on someone else so that no one thought it was me, that person would be a scapegoat. Nowadays, we also use the phrase a scapegoat when we need a good reason to not doing something or go somewhere. For example, if you don’t want to go to a work function, you can say that your child has a football game that you must attend. You have then used your child’s football game as a scapegoat.
What people think it is: On tender hooks
This is another one of those common English phrases I got wrong as a kid, but luckily was able to fix when I found out the right version. If someone is on tenterhooks, they are under a lot of stress or are on edge.
This phrase comes from something called a tenter, which is a word so outdated that neither AutoCorrect nor Word recognize it anymore. A tenter is a wooden frame used to dry wet cloth. The cloth was stretched onto the tenter and held in place by tenterhooks, so using this phrase when someone is under stress or tension makes a lot of sense!
First come, first served
What people think it is: First come, first serve
This one is pretty much a mistake in tense usage. By saying “first come, first serve”, it makes it sound as if the first people to arrive will be the first ones serving the others. However, the correct phrase is first come, first served. That means that if you’re the first person to arrive, you’ll be the first person served (with whatever is being served.)
You’ll hear this phrase often in things like giveaways, ticket sales, or any event where a large crowd is expected and they may not be able to accommodate everyone.
You’ve got another think coming
What people think it is: You’ve got another thing coming
This phrase is an example of the evolution in language in action. So many people say the incorrect version of this common English phrase, that it’s quickly becoming acceptable in day-to-day use.
The original phrase in its entirety is, if you think that, you have another think coming. It means that if you have an idea about something, it’s probably wrong and you need to have to rethink. Parents say this phrase a lot to misbehaving children.
I couldn’t care less
What people think it is: I could care less
If you could care less about something (the incorrect phrase), then you still care about it a little bit. If you couldn’t care less about something (the correct phrase), then you don’t care at all.
This one can be very difficult, especially when someone is talking quickly. If you want some extra help, check out this hilarious video with David Mitchell (from UK) as he tries to explain to us, Americans, how to use this common English phrase properly!
Which common English phrases have you heard incorrectly said or would you like help with? Let us know in the comments below!
Erin Duffin lives in Berlin (but not for long!), is an online English teacher, yoga and breath instructor, and could have written a longer list of commonly misused phrases but is embarrassed to know so many of them personally! Hah!