Like the police officer who confused PASSED AWAY with PASSED OUT (see the joke “Idiom Danger” below,) many of us mix up English expressions. For example, we may blend two idioms, mix up the preposition in a phrasal verb, incorrectly hear the words in an expression or simply not understand that the intended meaning is the opposite of the words. For non-native speakers, the meaning may be completely lost. Here are some examples.

COME OUT vs. COME OUT WITH: Confusing phrasal verbs

The joke referred to above is an issue of confusing phrasal verbs. These two-word verbs contain a preposition (also called a particle) which changes the meaning. For example, the word RUN is different in meaning from both RUN AWAY (escape) and RUN AROUND (going from place to place or hanging out with someone a lot.) These little prepositions can completely change the intended meaning. Here are a few examples:

  • COME UP means come upstairs or up north (such as to a cottage) while COME UP WITH means to invent or create something.
  • COME OUT means to go outside or to publicly disclose something private, often used with regards to admitting one’s homosexuality, while COME OUT WITH means to express or publish something.
  • COME INTO is often used to refer to inheriting money, but COME ON TO means to make sexual advances.
  • WORK SOMETHING OFF means to get rid of negative feelings or excess food or weight via physical exercise, or to work to pay for something. WORK SOMETHING OUT refers to solving a problem.

I COULD/COULDN’T CARE LESS: Which expression is correct?

Here’s an example of two opposite structures meaning the same thing. The common expression, I COULDN’T CARE LESS is also expressed as I COULD CARE LESS. Which is right? Well, both are used these days with the second being more common in the US. The true meaning is “I don’t care at all” so, logically, the first structure is more correct. But logic is not always the determining factor in language.

ALONG THE SAME VEIN: Creating hybrid expressions

Sometime people have heard two idioms and combine them. For example, ALONG THE SAME LINE and IN THE SAME VEIN both mean “on the same subject or similar in type.” So you may hear the expression ALONG THE SAME VEIN which is a hybrid expression – technically not the correct expression.

Another one I hear often is a combination of OUT OF MY HEAD (meaning something I invented) and OFF THE TOP OF MY HEAD (saying something without thinking,) resulting in OUT OF THE TOP OF MY HEAD. Since I am a visual person, I imagine something crawling out of someone’s skull!

TELL ME ABOUT IT: Opposite meanings

Irony — the deliberate contrast between apparent and intended meaning — is common in spoken English. Depending upon the tone of voice and intonation used, THANKS may mean “why did you do that — that was awful!” THAT’S SICK can mean “that’s disgusting,” (the older meaning) or “that’s amazing” (a commonly-used meaning among young people.) Here are a few other examples.

If you are complaining about a situation and someone says TELL ME ABOUT IT, the intended meaning is “I know all about that; I’ve gone through it myself,” implying the opposite of the words, i.e. don’t tell me about it.

Another common expression coming from Yiddish is I SHOULD BE SO LUCKY, which implies “I have no hope of being so lucky.”

NIP IT IN THE BUTT: Hearing Expressions Incorrectly

In English, linking and blending sounds can transform what we think the individual words are. Some examples are:

PLAY IT BY YEAR vs the correct phrase, PLAY IT BY EAR (meaning play music by imitating rather than reading.)

FOR ALL INTENSIVE PURPOSES vs the correct phrase FOR ALL INTENTS AND PURPOSES (meaning in every practical sense.)

MINUS WELL vs the correct phrase MIGHT AS WELL (meaning that it is probably better to do something than not.)

And my favourite, NIP IT IN THE BUTT (which sounds to me like someone needs to be spanked) vs the correct phrase NIP IT IN THE BUD (literally cut the bud off, referring to stopping a problem when it is new rather than leaving it until it grows.)

We all make these mistakes. All of us need to pay attention to these little words, intended meanings and ironic expressions. It’s a good practice to look up the expression in the dictionary to make sure you have the right words. If you are a native speaker, be aware of the expressions and vocabulary you are using when conversing with someone who comes from another culture. And if your first language is not English, don’t be afraid to ask questions; clarify so you don’t miss the meaning.