How to Be a Better Writer #5: Master Your Phrases

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More recently than I’d like to admit, I’d hear “The Joker” by The Steve Miller Band and sing along at the top of my lungs: “Some people call me Maurice (woo woo!) / ’cause I speak to the prophetess of love.” That is, until a friend gently pointed out that the line is “’cause I speak of the pompitous of love.” Whatever that means…

Belt out whatever lyrics you want on karaoke night, but when it comes to your writing, you’ve gotta get your phrases right. Today, I’m sharing 15 of the top misconstrued phrases, plus the correct ones you should slate in their place.

1) Instead of: Flush out
It’s actually: Flesh out
Trick: Think of giving an idea more body, fattening it up, making it fleshier.

2) Instead of: Hone in
It’s actually: Home in
Trick: Picture a homing pigeon returning to its place of origin — getting to the point. This one’s contentious, actually, but linguists generally agree that “home in” came first. If you can’t stand that idea, try using another phrase altogether: “zero in.”

3) Instead of: For all intensive purposes
It’s actually: For all intents and purposes
Trick: Just remember you’re including all your reasons — intents and purposes.

4) Instead of: Scotch free
It’s actually: Scot free
Trick: “Scot” is an old word for tax, so think “tax free.” The phrase has nothing to do with kilts, haggis or bagpipes.

5) Instead of: Could care less
It’s actually: Couldn’t care less
Trick: If you could care less, you do care, even if just a little. But here you’re saying that you really couldn’t give a hoot.

6) Instead of: Just assume
It’s actually: Just as soon
Trick: “Just as soon” means “rather.” It wouldn’t make sense to write, “She’d just assume eat crow.” But “She’d rather eat crow” is perfectly understandable, so therefore, “She’d just as soon eat crow” is, too.

7) Instead of: To spite
It’s actually: Despite (in many circumstances)
Trick: Like “just assume” vs. “just as soon,” this is another sound-alike pair that can trip you up. When you mean “regardless of,” say “despite.” Your characters aren’t going on a picnic to spite, or tick off, the rain, they’re going despite it.

8) Instead of: On accident
It’s actually: By accident
Trick: It happened by way of an accident. Or you could tighten up the sentence and write “accidentally” instead.

9) Instead of: Do a 360
It’s actually: Do a 180
Trick: It’s geometry time! If you do a 360, you’re back where you started. Doing a 180 means you went the opposite direction.

10) Instead of: Got another thing coming
It’s actually: Got another think coming
Trick: Think again, Judas Priest. The person here is going to have to reconsider the situation.

11) Instead of: Case and point
It’s actually: Case in point
Trick: The long of it is, “Here’s an example to illustrate my point.” You’re presenting evidence like an attorney who’s making a case.

12) Instead of: Jive with
It’s actually: Jibe with
Trick: “Jibe” means “to fit in with.” (Though it could be argued that jiving is more fun!)

13) Instead of: Statue of limitations
It’s actually: Statute of limitations
Trick: A statute is a law. This particular one outlines the length of time the state has to solve and prosecute various crimes.

14) Instead of: Make due
It’s actually: Make do
Trick: You’re not putting a deadline on something, you’re doing the best with what you have…making a go of it.

15) Instead of: Mute point
It’s actually: Moot point
Trick: Rule out “mute” — topics can’t talk. The idea here is not worth debating, the definition of “moot.”

What other phrases could we add to the list? Have you learned other tricks for minding your phrases? Speak up below!

What editing and writing questions are on your mind? Just shoot me an email email me. Your idea could be the topic of my next post. I’m taking a short leave from the indie BRAG blog as I learn the ropes of parenthood — my husband and I are welcoming a little one in just a few weeks! I’ll be back with more tips and tricks soon. Meanwhile, keep on writing!

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