20 Common Phrases Even The Smartest People Misuse

Business woman grabbing her hair-compressed

By Christina Desmarais | The Muse

When you hear someone using grammar incorrectly, do you make an assumption about his or her intelligence or education? There’s no doubt that words are powerful things that can leave a lasting impression on those with whom you interact.

In fact, using an idiom incorrectly or screwing up your grammar is akin to walking into a meeting with messy hair. That’s according to Byron Reese, CEO of the venture-backed internet startup Knowingly. The company recently launched Correctica, a tool that scans websites looking for errors that spell checkers miss. And the business world is no exception. “When I look for these errors on LinkedIn profiles, they’re all over the place—tens of thousands,” he says.

Correctica recently scanned a handful of prominent websites, and you might be surprised at how many errors it found. Here is Reese’s list of the some of the most commonly misused phrases on the web.

1. Prostrate Cancer

It’s an easy misspelling to make—just add an extra r and “prostate cancer” becomes “prostrate cancer,” which suggests “a cancer of lying face-down on the ground.” Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Mayo Clinic websites include this misspelling.

2. First-Come, First-Serve

This suggests that the first person to arrive has to serve all who follow. The actual phrase is “first-come, first-served,” to indicate that the participants will be served in the order in which they arrive. Both Harvard and Yale got this one wrong.


3. Sneak Peak

A “peak” is a mountain top. A “peek” is a quick look. The correct expression is “sneak peek,” meaning a secret or early look at something. This error appeared on Oxford University’s site as well as that of the National Park Service.

4. Deep-Seeded

This should be “deep-seated,” to indicate that something is firmly established. Though “deep-seeded” might seem to make sense, indicating that something is planted deep in the ground, this is not the correct expression. Correctica found this error on theWashington Post and the White House websites.

5. Extract Revenge

To “extract” something is to remove it, like a tooth. The correct expression is “exact revenge,” meaning to achieve revenge. Both The New York Times and the BBC have made this error.

6. I Could Care Less

“I couldn’t care less” is what you would say to express maximum apathy toward a situation. Basically you’re saying, “It’s impossible for me to care less about this because I have no more care to give. I’ve run out of care.” Using the incorrect “I could care less” indicates that “I still have care left to give—would you like some?”

7. Shoe-In

“Shoo-in” is a common idiom that means a sure winner. To “shoo” something is to urge it in a direction. As you would shoo a fly out of your house, you could also shoo someone toward victory. The expression started in the early 20th century, relating to horse racing and broadened to politics soon after. It’s easy to see why the “shoe-in” version is so common, as it suggests the door-to-door sales practice of moving a foot into the doorway to make it more difficult for a prospective client to close the door. But “foot in the door” is an entirely different idiom.

8. Emigrated To

With this one there is no debate. The verb “emigrate” is always used with the preposition “from,” whereas immigrate is always used with the preposition “to.” To emigrate is to come from somewhere, and to immigrate is to go to somewhere. “Jimmy emigrated from Ireland to the United States” means the same thing as “Jimmy immigrated to the United States from Ireland.” It’s just a matter of what you’re emphasizing—the coming or the going.

9. Slight of Hand

“Sleight of hand” is a common phrase in the world of magic and illusion, because “sleight” means dexterity or cunning, usually to deceive. On the other hand, as a noun, a “slight” is an insult.

10. Honed In

First, it’s important to note that this particular expression is hotly debated. Many references now consider “hone in” a proper alternate version of “home in.” That said, it is still generally accepted that “home in” is the more correct phrase. To home in on something means to move toward a goal, such as “The missile homed in on its target.” To “hone” means to sharpen. You would say, “I honed my résumé writing skills.” But you would likely not say, “The missile honed in on its target.” When followed by the preposition “in,” the word “hone” just doesn’t make sense.

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  1. Yeah I need a primary for intelligence alright haha

  2. The “I could care less” always drives me crazy!

  3. I hear people say ” I’ve got to pee like a russian race horse”. It is a ruptured race horse. Ugh!

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