Mispronouncing smart words and phrases is like wearing a suit with a stain on it. Your intention is to appear sharp, but you look sloppy regardless of how nice the suit is. Some mispronunciations have become common enough that the correct word or phrase confuses readers. In your writing, should you follow common or proper usage? Prescriptivists, language conservatives, and descriptivists, language liberals, would argue either way. Read the following frequently mispronounced words and phrases to help you decide.
1 Incorrect: chomp at the bit Correct: champ at the bit The idiom champ at the bit refers to the chewing action horses make while waiting to race. Champ means to bite or chew and bit is the metal mouthpiece used for controlling a horse. Chomp and champ share similar meanings, making this mispronunciation one of the lesser offenses.
2 Incorrect: doggy-dog world Correct: dog-eat-dog world Dog-eat-dog world describes a world in which people do anything to be successful. If I had to guess, doggy-dog world describes a dog utopia with endless fields, belly rubs, and treats. This is known as an eggcorn, which is a misheard word or phrase that retains its original meaning.
3 Incorrect: for all intensive purposes Correct: for all intents and purposes The phrase for all intents and purposes means “in every practical sense.” It’s commonly mispronounced as for all intensive purposes. This occurs in speech more often than in writing, because most grammar and spelling checkers will catch it.
4 Incorrect: hierarchy (pronounced hi-archy) Correct: hierarchy \ˈhī-(ə-)ˌrär-kē \ When speaking about a group that is divided into different levels, make sure to pronounce all four syllables in the word.
5 Incorrect: nip it in the butt Correct: nip it in the bud To nip is “to sever as if pinched sharply, or to destroy the growth of.” To nip it in the bud is to stop it from flowering completely. To nip it in the butt is a funny mispronunciation suggesting action to stimulate rather than to stop.
6 Incorrect: irregardless Correct: regardless Regardless means heedless or careless. Irregardless is a made-up word and a double negative; it’s also too confusing to use.
7 Incorrect: spitting image Correct: spit and image The idiom spit and image is from God’s use of spit and mud to create Adam in his image, as told in the Bible. More commonly, spitting image is used. It means “someone who looks exactly like another person” according to the Macmillan Dictionary.
8 Incorrect: try a different tact Correct: try a different tack To tack is to abruptly turn a boat, and taking a different tack is to try another approach. Tact, which means sensitivity in social situations, is mistaken as a short form of tactic; however, suggesting someone take a different sensitivity is unclear.
9 Incorrect: victual (pronounced vicshual) Correct: victual \ˈvi-təl\ Victual, which rhymes with whittle, is food usable by people. According to Merriam-Webster it was first used in the fifteenth century and comes from Middle English vitaille, victuayle.
Which of these words or phrases have you mispronounced? Should any of them be used in their incorrect or frequently mispronounced forms?