6 Tricky English Expressions

by Brittney Ross

Have you ever started to write out a common expression, only to realize that you’re not really sure how it’s spelled? We all have. Lots of idiomatic English phrases contain words that we don’t otherwise use anymore, or that have changed meaning outside the expression. Check out our list of commonly confused phrases to help you toe (or is it tow?) the line of proper spelling.

1. Toe the line

Yes, it is, in fact, “toe the line.” To toe the line means to follow the rules, conform, or behave. It’s a reference to the way people arrange themselves (with their toes placed along a line on the ground) at the beginning of a race or parade, or to present themselves for an inspection. Other related expressions that have fallen out of use include “toe the mark” and “toe the scratch.”

2. Just deserts

This is often incorrectly written as “just desserts” because that’s the way we pronounce the phrase. But in fact, this expression has nothing to do with cake and ice cream or with hot, sandy wastelands. When we say someone got their “just deserts” we mean that they got what was coming to them. Or, to put it another way, they got what they deserve. Notice anything similar about the spelling of “deserts” and “deserve”? “Deserts” is an archaic noun form of “deserve.”

3. Take for granted

It’s easy to mishear this one as “take for granite.” It does kind of make sense, after all. Taking something for granted means that we fail to appreciate it because it seems like it has always been there and always will be. Granite is pretty long-lasting, right? But what the expression really means is that we mistakenly believe that something has been permanently granted to us.

4. Home in on

To home in on a problem means to focus your attention on it. It’s not hard to see why it’s sometimes mistakenly written as “hone in.” When you hone a knife you make it sharper, and therefore more precise—sort of what you are doing with your attention. But this expression uses “home” in the sense of “moving toward a target,” as in “homing missile” or “homing pigeon.”

5. Different tack

Not “different tact.” To understand why this expression is spelled the way it is, it helps to know that once upon a time “tack” was a nautical term for the direction a ship was traveling. So, to try a “different tack” means to approach a problem from a new direction. The confusion here probably comes from the similarity in meaning between “different tack” and “different tactic.”

6. Humble pie

And finally, no matter how proud we are of knowing the right way to write phrases that everyone else always seems to misspell, we should all remember to eat a slice of humble pie now and then. Language evolves over time, and so do expressions. Sometimes the “wrong” version eventually replaces the original and the malapropism becomes standard. In fact, “humble pie” was once “umble pie,” a pie containing deer innards and supposedly representative of inferior food.

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