Work & Career
24 Things You’ve Been Saying Wrong This Whole Time
It’s hard to remember those confusing grammar rules you learned all the way back in grade school. So we rounded up the trickiest phrases and words and explained what you actually should be saying.
Could care less
What you actually mean: Couldn’t care less
You want to say you care so little already that you couldn’t possibly care any less. When the Boston Celtics’ Ray Allen said, “God could care less whether I can shoot a jump shot,” we know he meant exactly the opposite because 1) God has other things on his mind, and 2) God is a Knicks fan. It’s safe to ignore these strict grammar rules.
Mano a mano
What you actually mean: Man-to-man
You don’t speak Spanish by adding vowels to the end of English words, as a columnist describing father–teenage son relationships seemed to think when he wrote, “Don’t expect long, mano a mano talks.” Mano a mano (literally, “hand to hand”) originated with bullfighting and usually refers to a knock-down, drag-out direct confrontation.
What you actually mean: Fewer
In general, use fewer when you’re specifying a number of countable things (“200 words or fewer”); reserve less for a mass (“less than half”). So when you’re composing a tweet, do it in 140 characters or fewer, not less.
What you actually mean: Home in
Knowing the difference between these phrases instantly makes you sound smarter. Like homing pigeons, we can be single-minded about finding our way to a point: “Scientists are homing in on the causes of cancer.” Hone means “to sharpen”: “The rookie spent the last three seasons honing his skills in the minor leagues.” But it’s easy to mishear m’s and n’s, which is probably what happened to the Virginia senator who said, “We’ve got to hone in on cost containment.” If you’re unsure, say “zero in” instead. Make sure to follow these little grammar rules to sound smarter.
What you could mean: Take
The choice depends on your point of view. Use “bring” when you want to show motion toward you (“Bring the dog treats over here, please”). Use “take” to show motion in the opposite direction (“I have to take Rufus to the vet”). The rule gets confusing when the movement has nothing to do with you. In those cases, you can use either verb, depending on the context: “The assistant brought the shot to the vet” (the vet’s point of view); “the assistant took the shot to the doctor” (the assistant’s). This is the grammar rule you didn’t know you already knew.
What you could mean: Whom
It all depends. Do you need a subject or an object? A subject (who) is the actor of the sentence: “Who left the rollerskates on the sidewalk?” An object (whom) is the acted-upon: “Whom are you calling?” Parents, hit the Mute button when Dora the Explorer shouts, “Who do we ask for help when we don’t know which way to go?” A lot of classic pop songs fall victim to this grammatical confusion.
Brother-in-laws, runner-ups, hole in ones, etc.
What you actually mean: Brothers-in-law, runners-up, holes in one, etc.
Plurals of these compound nouns are formed by adding an “s” to the thing there’s more than one of (brothers, not laws). Some exceptions: words ending in “-ful” (mouthfuls) and phrases like culs-de-sac. On the other hand, it’s hard to believe these irregular plurals are actually correct.
What you actually mean: Try to
Try and try again, yes, but if you’re planning to do something, use the infinitive form: “I’m going to try to run a marathon.” Commenting on an online story about breakups, one woman wrote, “A guy I dated used to try and impress me with the choice of books he was reading.”
What you actually mean: Different from
This isn’t the biggest offense, but if you can easily substitute “from” for “than” (My mother’s tomato sauce is different from my mother-in-law’s), do it. Use “than” for comparisons: My mother’s tomato sauce is better than my mother-in-law’s.
Beg the question
What you actually mean: Raise the question
Correctly used, “begging the question” is like making a circular argument (I don’t like you because you’re so unlikable). But unless you’re a philosophy professor, you shouldn’t ever need this phrase. Stick to “raise the question.”
You can also say: Over
The two are interchangeable when the sentence is “Over 6,000 hats were sold.” We like grammarian Bryan Garner’s take on it: “The charge that “over” is inferior to “more than” is a baseless crotchet.”
What you probably mean: Supposedly
Supposably is, in fact, a word—it means “conceivably”—but not the one you want if you’re trying to say “it’s assumed,” and certainly not the one you want if you’re on a first date with an English major or a job interview with an English speaker. Check out these other words and phrases you’re probably using all wrong.
What you actually mean: All
Why: Drop the “of” whenever you can, as Julia Roberts recently did, correctly: “Every little moment is amazing if you let yourself access it. I learn that all the time from my kids.” But you need “all of” before a pronoun (“all of them”) and before a possessive noun (“all of Julia’s kids”).
What you probably mean: Which
“The money that is on the table is for you” is different from “the money, which is on the table, is for you.” “That” pinpoints the subject: The money that is on the table is yours; the money in my pocket is mine. “Which” introduces an aside, a bit of extra information. If you remove “which is on the table,” you won’t change the meaning: The money is for you (oh, and unless you don’t want it, it’s on the table). If the clause is necessary to your meaning, use “that;” if it could safely be omitted, say “which.”
What you actually mean: Outside
These two prepositions weren’t meant for each other. Perfectly acceptable: “Wearing a cheese-head hat outside Wisconsin will likely earn you some stares and glares (unless you’re surrounded by Green Bay Packers fans, that is).” Grammar nerds will appreciate these hilarious jokes.
What you actually mean: One another
Tradition says that “each other” should be used with two people or things, and “one another” with more than two, and careful speakers should follow suit: “The three presenters argued with one another over who should announce the award, but Ann and Barbara gave each other flowers after the ceremony.” (By the way, if you need the possessive form of either one when writing that business letter, it’s always each other’s and one another’s; never end with s’.)
Confusing pair: Wary vs Weary
A wary or leery person is suspicious, but someone who is weary is simply tired.
Confusing pair: Farther vs Further
Use “farther” when talking about physical distance and “further” for metaphorical distance or time. He hopes to run farther at his next race, but right now, he’s focused on reading further in his new novel.
Confusing pair: Principal vs Principle
A principal is a person, and a principle is a rule. The principal of a school lives her life by certain principles that she set for herself. You’re probably pronouncing “the” wrong.
Confusing pair: Compliment vs Complement
Compliments are nice things to say. A complement makes something complete or perfect; it’s also used as a verb. You can give a compliment to a co-worker who found a scarf that complements her outfit.
Confusing pair: Continual vs Continuous
Continual means ongoing but intermittent. Something that is continuous has no interruptions. These common words used to mean completely different things.
Confusing pair: Stationary vs Stationery
A stationary soldier stands still, but he writes letters on fancy stationery.
Confusing pair: Imply vs Infer
To imply is to suggest a meaning, and to infer means to draw meaning from something. The speaker does the implying, and the listener infers something from that statement.
Confusing pair: Affect vs Effect
Affect is typically a verb, meaning “to act upon or cause an effect”; as a noun, it’s “an emotional response.” On the other hand, effect is typically a noun, meaning “something produced,” like a special effect; as a verb, “to bring about,” as in “to effect change.” See how well you know these sneakily similar word pairs.