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  • Writer's pictureAaron Arm

The Wrong Words at the Right Time

Updated: May 6

... because, wait -- is that not the right word??

I'm astounded by the lengths to which people will go to defend this one.


We've all had that friend, family member, or coworker who seems to mishear common words or phrases and then repeat them incorrectly. Maybe it's just their own little idiosyncrasy—I was once acquainted with someone who would say "Mice as well" in lieu of "Might as well." Usually, however, these not-quite-right phrases are part of a larger misunderstanding. As these misunderstood words catch on and gain a colloquial life of their own, they become almost valid in their own right. Almost.

But therein lies the problem: A misused word, phrase, or expression, even if widely used and commonly understood, may still be nonsensical when given a bit of scrutiny. Words do, after all, mean things. And until the words themselves completely change, both descriptively and prescriptively, it's best to use them "properly." After all, the very heart of language and communication is to work toward a shared understanding of ideas.

So, what do we call these tiny aberrations of language? Malapropisms!

malapropism noun mal·​a·​prop·​ism | ˈma-lə-ˌprä-ˌpi-zəm  1: the usually unintentionally humorous misuse or distortion of a word or phrase especially: the use of a word sounding somewhat like the one intended but ludicrously wrong in the context [source]

Common Malapropisms

  • You might have heard or read someone bemoan that it's a "doggy dog world" when, in fact, the expression is a dog eat dog world.

  • How about someone urging that you "nip [a problem] in the butt," when they mean to say nip it in the bud.

  • And then, of course, there's the person who prefaces their statement with, "For all intensive purposes," when it should be For all intents and purposes.

  • Has anyone told you to "be weary" of something? Unless they're instructing you to fall asleep, they're probably cautioning you to be wary.

  • I bet you've done this one: If you want to refer to "a whole 'nother" issue, you really mean a whole other issue. This comes from interjecting "whole" in the word "another," so it effectively becomes "a-whole-nother," which makes sense when we say it out loud. But it's slang in that sense, so be intentional with how you use it.

These are prime examples of the malapropisms making little to no sense—and the original wording making a whole lot more sense—when you stop to think about it. But that's the nefarious nature of these common sayings: We understand the connotation from context, and we therefore associate the words with that meaning, regardless of what the words themselves actually denote.

But these examples are also more likely to be corrected in time, either through self-realization or an all-too-eager grammarian in the audience. How about some issues that tend to fly under the radar?

Commonly Confused Words

Let's face it: We're all prone to repeating words that look and sound correct without much second-guessing. So, when the difference between two words is subtle, it can be hard to catch. In some cases, the improper version might even be more commonly repeated than the original. So, here's a list of some mistakes that I think are sneakier in their misuse, but are misused all the same.

Note: I'm hesitant (but not reticent) to conflate any misused word or wrong homonym as a malapropism. As exemplified above, I tend to think of malapropisms as involving expressions or colloquialisms. So, in the interest of pedantry, let's just call these "commonly confused words":

  • Reticent: If you're reticent, you're withholding your thoughts or feelings. You are reserved. It may involve emotional hesitation, but it is not a synonym for hesitant.

    • "Sally was new to the class and therefore reticent."

    • "Sally was hesitant to jump into the pool, as she did not know how to swim."

  • Compliment: This is a show of admiration or affection. If you want to express that one thing fits nicely with another, then they complement each other.

    • "Dave complimented my tie."

    • "Dave said that my brown tie complemented my brown shoes."

  • Hung: The past tense differs, here. When an object is suspended, it's hung. When a person is killed by hanging, they are hanged.

    • "He hung a picture on the wall."

    • "He was hanged for his crimes."

  • Disinterested: This means not having bias or a personally invested opinion. Think "dispassionate." If you are simply bored or apathetic, you're uninterested.

    • "A judge should be disinterested in the defendant's fate."

    • "Even though I was uninterested in algebra, I still did my homework."

  • Adverse: Harmful or unfavorable. Not to be confused with averse, which is when you oppose something.

    • "This drug may have some adverse side-effects."

    • "I'm averse to driving on that street due to the potholes."

  • Musk(y): This is my favorite mistake! "Musk" is what animals produce (like pheromones), or how we describe the pleasant smell of a person. If you're describing an old, moldy, dusty smell, try musty.

    • "Lisa missed the musky scent of her husband's cologne."

    • "Lisa ventured into the musty attic."

  • Incidence: This describes a rate or frequency of something repeatedly occurring, as in statistical analysis. If you want to refer to a single occurrence, it's an incident. More than one incident is "incidents," not "incidences."

    • "The poor working conditions resulted in multiple injurious incidents."

    • "There's been an increased incidence of anxiety among the population."

  • Lie vs. lay: Buckle up. This one gets tricky.

    • Lie is what you, yourself, do. You might lie on the floor or tell a lie. "Jim said that he would lie down for a bit, but he lied."

    • Lay is what you do to something. You might lay bricks or lay a baby down in bed. "Jim told me to lay the money on the table."

      • But wait, it gets worse. They past tense of "lie" is "lay" (unless you mean to tell a lie, in which case it's "lied"), and the past tense of "lay" is "laid." See here for a more complete reference of conjugating these verbs.

  • Apropos: There's nuance here. Traditionally, this means "relevant" or "in relation." So, we'd say that Topic 1 is apropos to Topic 2. In some contexts, people have used this to mean that something feels apropos when it's appropriately relevant. Over time, it's becoming increasingly used as a synonym for "appropriate," but a more discerning audience might judge you for that usage.

    • Traditional usage: "Apropos to our conversation on climate change, I'd like to talk about my new electric car."

    • Alternatively: "Oh, you bought an electric car after all this talk of climate change? How very apropos."

    • Not quite right: "Your behavior is not apropos for this place and time."

  • 📌Bonus📌 ~ Begs the question: This expression used to have a more specific and rhetorical meaning, which has since been lost in everyday use. If you'd like to avoid the silent judgment of pedants and linguists, consider this:

    • "Begging the question" is a logical fallacy in which the speaker assumes some premise that has not yet been established: Claiming that "Bigfoot is an anarcho-capitalist and therefore anarcho-capitalists are primitive" begs the question of Bigfoot's existence (among other things).

    • Commonly, people use this phrase to simply mean that one idea elicits a new question. However, there's admittedly a lot of crossover here. Oftentimes a question is raised precisely because something was erroneously assumed. But if you want to be especially intentional with your phrasing, see if the situation is apropos to the original definition.

Which Word Substitutions Cause You to Silently Judge People?

It's ok. We can all be a little pedantic. That's part of the fun of learning these things. I'd love to hear which malapropisms or weird language quirks you've overheard.

~ Happy writing!

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