21 March 2021

50+ Troublesome Words and Phrases

Leigh Lundin

My friend/editor Sharon sent me an article titled ’43 Embarrassing Grammar Mistakes Even Smart People Make’. I’ve become complacent about these lists– Velma says smug. Most of the usual suspects were there, but to my surprise, I found a couple I hadn’t given thought to.

Unthawing Foreign Relations

One was the word unthaw. I’ve heard others use it without setting off my grammar alarm. I don’t think I’ve used it, but now it’s on my radar. To unthaw literally means to freeze. Yikes!

Emigrate (which I’ve included in the list below with immigrate) requires the preposition ‘from’, although we can optionally include the destination ‘to’. Likewise, immigrate necessitates the preposition ‘to’, although we may choose to include ‘from’. For example,

  • She immigrated to Canada (from Angola).
  • She emigrated from Angola (to Canada).


I’ve long been nonplussed and dismayed and, yes, gobsmacked that the Oxford English Dictionary insists that silly Americans misuse ‘nonplussed’ (surprised) to mean its opposite (unperturbed). In my unscientific polls amongst uneducated citizenry, I’ve met only one person who hit upon the wrong meaning, but admitted he didn’t actually know what the word meant. Chew on that, OED!

juvenile flounder
juvenile flounder © Wikipedia

mature flounder
mature flounder © Wikipedia

Bagging the Question

I attended a Latin school where rhetoric, logic, and debate were taught. One of the trickier concepts to master was ‘beg the question’, which assumes an assertion as fact without laying the foundation for it. I’ve notice more commentators and newscasters using ‘beg the question’ to mean ‘ask the question’, including the acme of academia, the world-renown BBC. Recalling my schoolhood efforts to pin down the original concept, I have some sympathy for those without the benefit of rhetoric, logic, and debate, but I recommend avoiding the phrase altogether. Eschew on that, Miss Arthur!


À propos of nothing, my Aunt Rae noted the difference between prostitute and prostrate was the difference between a fallen lady versus one who temporarily lost her balance. And then we have the serious matter of prostate. If nothing else manages to kill a man, his prostate will!

How to Catch a Flounder (without Baited Breath)

Too often when people speak of a person or project that stumbles or sinks, they say it ‘flounders’ (a fish) instead of ‘founders’. This particular fish is unusual. When it’s young, it swims upright like most other fish. But when it matures, it sinks into the bottom, blending in with the sea floor. There it performs a slow-motion magic trick, distorting its own head and body to suit its environment. Its eyes migrate to the new upper surface and its mouth usually twists in the opposite direction. It may look like it’s about to founder, but it’s only a flounder.

50+ Often Misused Words and Non-Words

Confused Words
    Words in the left column of this first group aren’t necessarily wrong. They bear review because they’re often confused with those in the right column.
adopt (take up, take on, assume) adapt (change to meet conditions)
adverse (unfavorable) averse (opposed to)
bemused (confused) amused (entertained)
disinterested (impartial) uninterested (uncaring)
enormity (evil, wickedness) enormous (huge)
flounder (a fish) founder (break down, sink)
i.e. (id est: that is) e.g. (exempli gratia: for example)
infer (deduce) imply (intimate)
inflammable (burnable) nonflammable (not burnable)
jive (dance, talk) jibe (match)
literally (actually) figuratively (metaphorically)
nauseous (sickening) nauseated (sickened)
prostrate (prone) prostate (gland)
review (examine, reassess) revue (theatrical entertainment)
sympathy (understanding) empathy (intuiting another’s feelings)
trooper (soldier, state police) trouper (persist uncomplainingly)
under way (moving along, travelling) under weigh (lifting anchor)
  • Never use apostrophes for pronouns: mine, yours, his, hers, theirs, its.
  • Omit apostrophes in collective proper nouns such as family names, as in “the Kennedys”.
  • Either use double apostrophes or omit them altogether for nouns that might be confused. “She dotted her ‘i’s and crossed her ‘t’s.” Alternatively, “The third measure of the musical score contained three Gs and an A.
  • Omit apostrophes when specifying an era such as a century or decade. “The most popular song of 1929 was Makin' Whoopee and 1930’s was ‘In the Mood’, but ‘Over the Rainbow’ topped the 1930s.”
its (possessive) it's (contraction: it is)
Smith’s (possessive) Smiths (collective noun)
VIPs (plural) ‘A’s and ‘B’s (plural)
1960’s (possessive) 1960s (era, decade)
    These phrases concern superfluous wording, excess verbiage that add nothing and dull their sentences. I’ve probably used “tenth-year anniversary” without realizing it.
first-year anniversary ✘ first anniversary
hot water heater ✘ water heater
red in color ✘ red
large in size ✘ large
political in nature ✘ political
Prepositional Requirements
    Discussed above, these two words require certain prepositions. Emigrate implies leaving one’s country and generally requires ‘from’, especially if ‘to’ is present. Immigrate implies entering a new residency and requires the target ‘to’, particularly if ‘from’ appears. Some uses require no prepositions at all: “He plans to emigrate.”
emigrated to ✘ emigrated from
immigrate from ✘ immigrate to
Incorrect Usage
    The following common nonsensical words and incorrect phrases include misspellings and misunderstandings. That said, many of us would like to apply “nipped in the butt” from time to time.
baited breath ✘ bated breath
boldface lie ✘ baldface lie
chalk full ✘ chock full
chock it up ✘ chalk it up
could care less ✘ couldn’t care less
dark-complected ✘ dark-complexioned
deep-seeded ✘ deep-seated
do diligence ✘ due diligence
expresso ✘ espresso
extract revenge ✘ exact revenge
free reign ✘ free rein
honed in on ✘ homed in on
irregardless ✘ regardless
jerry-rigged ✘ jury-rigged
make due ✘ make do
mute issue/point/question ✘ moot
nip in the butt ✘ nip in the bud
peak my interest ✘ pique my interest
per say ✘ per se
perview ✘ purview
piece of mind ✘ peace of mind
shoe-in ✘ shoo-in
should of, would of ✘ should have, would have
slight of hand ✘ sleight of hand
sneak peak ✘ sneak peek
through the ringer ✘ through the wringer
tie me over ✘ tide me over
tow the line ✘ toe the line
unthaw ✘ thaw
wet the appetite ✘ whet the appetite
worse comes to worse ✘ worse comes to worst

Do you find any of these troublesome?

What addition would you make?


  1. Good posting. I'm sure I made some of these mistakes over the years. Hey, I caught a flounder once. Looks like it was a mature. It was big.

    1. O'Neil, those I've seen were no bigger than the sole of an average man's shoe, but I've seen photos of large ones up to a metre length. Although not the largest, I like this photo because it shows how the top and bottom (formerly its left and right sides) adapt after years on the seabed.

    2. Naw, that one must have been a fluke.

    3. (laughing) Liz, you should have witnessed that explosion in my head, simultaneously startling those around me by bursting into laughter, and caught up in the brilliance of that pun while thinking, "I don't believe she did that!" That's worth at least 10 QI points.

  2. What a great list!

    Lots of writers seem confused by the word "lead", meaning to lead, vs. "led", meaning the past tense of the same word.

    There is also a big difference between "regimen" and "regime", not at all interchangeable.

    1. Good points, Karen. Not only can lead/led fool us, they also can jarringly confuse the text-to-voice function of e-readers. Thanks for those additions, Karen.

  3. Guilty, guilty and yep, I still use that one.

    1. (laughing) Thanks, RT. It's good to know some things give veteran professionals pause.

  4. A year ago, I wrote an article about words that can mean their opposite. As I was writing today’s article, it occurred to me that ‘founder’ falls into that category, causing me to update the article.
    • Founder with implications of creation:
    1. a person who creates a business or town
    2. to create using metals
    • Founder with implications of destruction:
    3. to sink
    4. to fail
    5. to go lame

  5. Love these!! Thanks, Leigh. One addition: "For all intensive purposes" instead of the correct "for all intents and purposes."

    And for God's sake don't listen to Velma.

    1. Another good one, John! Thank you. So many gotchas out there.

  6. You've included a lot of my favorites. Recently I read a piece that Webster's was now going to include "irregardless" as an acceptable form. Ugh.

  7. A Broad Abroad21 March, 2021 17:47

    Two of many pet peeves to add to your list:
    'a hair's breath' instead of 'a hair's breadth'
    'in one fowl/foul swoop' instead of 'fell swoop'

    1. Or hare's breath, for that matter, that's splitting bunnies.

      I hadn't encountered fowl swoop, but your kingfishers might disagree.

      Great to see you, Aba!

  8. One typo/error that always bugged/bugs me is "every day" vs. "everyday," as in "Low prices everyday," as opposed to "Everyday low prices every day."

    Years ago, when I was a court reporter, I had a typist who heard "errors and omissions insurance" as "Arizona missions insurance." That was back in the '80s and I still get a chuckle out of that.

    And did anyone else notice the typo in the list above: "Could't care less"?

    1. Yikes! Jake, as I was putting this together, I knew I risked some mistake. I'm glad it wasn't worse… but are polite people holding back?

      "Everyday' and similar can sneak in our writing all too often. Arizona missions… that is classic.

    2. Oops; I thought you'd copy/pasted that part. Just my old court reporter coming through.

      BTW, I made up a word, "perflutzed," for my first novel, and I've been using it in live conversations, leaving most listeners perflutzed, until I explain the meaning to them.

    3. Jake, I'm glad you unflutzed that word for us.

  9. Thanks! Didn't know all of this!

  10. Webster's says "jerry-rigged" is correct. That it is a mix of "jerry-built" and "jury-rigged."

    1. Kelvaris, thanks for pointing that out. I can't recall if it was the OED, but when I was looking it up yet again, apparently the formerly incorrect "jerry-rigged" is now used more often than the formal "jury-rigged".

  11. The history of “nonplussed” is not as straightforward as you indicate.

    1. Ron, from my Latin schooling (and what little I manage of French), I know it literally means 'not more'. What else can you tell us about its history?


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