SAY THAT AGAIN?: Matt’s Top 10 misused words and phrases


Everyone knows I’m a lover of language. My inclination toward the written and spoken word is a long-standing affair of the heart. I’ve been known for years as something of a “grammar nazi”; whenever I’m away from the office I inevitably return to a backlog of requests for help – “is this right?”, “where does the apostrophe go in this sentence?”, “does this read correctly or should I say it differently?”, “what’s a better way of saying ‘pompous arrogant git’?” and the like.

So it probably comes as no surprise to anyone that I find myself biting my tongue in all kinds of settings, when I hear how so many people so often misuse common words and phrases. Small things mostly, but in the end if it just isn’t right then it just shouldn’t be said. Such bastardisation of the beautiful English language; it truly makes my heart break every time I hear it. If I were a betting man, I’d say the chance of me being slightly obsessed had pretty good odds.

Let me be very clear up front: I’m not talking about the likes of “excape”, “expecially” or “arks” here, which are no more than mispronounced words – I put them in the same class as lisps, pronouncing ‘r’ sounds as ‘w’ or ‘th’ sounds as ‘f’ – all basically speech impediments. No, what I’m talking about here are words or combinations of words, contractions or even whole phrases that just don’t mean anything when used in the way that many people string them together.

As with any list that I hastily cobble together I don’t claim this to be definitive, merely a selection of my (least) favourites.

‘Return back’: no! You can go back or you can return. You don’t return back. Come to that, what would ‘returning back’ even be? It’s almost… I dunno… a double-negative? I think it’d be something like going to a place, then coming back, then going back to the place you just came back from. I think.

‘Would of’ / ‘could of’ /’should of’: no! It’s would’ve, the contraction of ‘would’ and ‘have’. “I would of done it”, “it could of been”, “you should of told me” – yes I know what you mean, but none of these statements mean anything at all when they contain the word ‘of’.

‘Rather then’ / ‘better then’ / ‘other then’: no! It’s than, not then! What on earth could a phrase like “other then that” possibly mean? Answer: not very much and certainly not what you’re trying to say!

‘Prospective’: of customers, yes; of tenants, yes; of home buyers or someone in the market to make any other kind of purchase, yes. Of viewpoints? No! It’s perspective, not prospective. “From our prospective, it’s not a big deal”, “from the business prospective, it’s top priority”… no! Neither of those statements means anything! Prospective is all about the future, something that someone wants to do and by God they’re gonna do it. It’s neither a position to have, nor a position to take. Nothing happens, anywhere, ever, from someone’s prospective. Never. Ever.

‘Too’ vs. ‘To’: “that’s to funny”, “there’s to much to do”, “I’m to dumb to know better” – no! It’s too! T-O-O. It’s an adverb that quite literally adds to the the weight of the word it’s used in conjunction with – so it’s not just funny, it’s too funny; I’m not just dumb, I’m too dumb; there’s not just much to do, there’s too much to do. The reminder comes from how you pronounce ‘too’, when you say it out loud, differently to how you pronounce ‘to’, which ends up sounding more like ‘t’ when you’re speaking. Right? Make sense now? Hmmm… perhaps an understanding of phonetics is a bit too much to expect of someone who can’t spell ‘too’?

‘Mute point’: no! It’s moot. It’s a moot point. What the hell is a ‘mute point’ supposed to be when it’s at home anyway? What exactly do people who say this actually believe they’re saying? What is a mute point, if not a point that can’t speak? Or maybe that’s the answer right there, staring me in the face!? Even people who use the term ‘moot’ tend to misuse it anyway, as a means of cutting off discussion on the grounds that further discussion is unwarranted or the topic is no longer valid. Which is actually wrong. That isn’t really what ‘moot’ means at all. But if someone thought that’s what it meant, but in fact thought the word was ‘mute’ rather than ‘moot… hmmm. ‘Mute’ is an inability to speak…. a ‘mute point’ would be, maybe, a point that isn’t worth speaking about any more??… oh dear God, I think I’m almost starting to make sense of it! That’s pretty frightening!

‘Try and…’: no! It’s try to! This one is so common that even people who, in theory, should know better do it – journalists, writers, people who generally speak well in almost every other way, all have been guilty of misusing ‘try and’. But what most people don’t recognise – again because most people don’t actively think about the individual words they use – is that saying ‘and’ in the context of ‘try’ adds a whole other element to what you’re talking about; in essence, it completely changes what you’re trying to say. Example: “I’ll try to get it done” – meaning, I’ll try my very best to finish whatever is the topic of discussion; as opposed to “I’ll try and get it done”. Totally different meaning, because the ‘and’ means there are now two separate actions in that statement – I’ll try (try what exactly, who can say because I haven’t actually said what I’ll try) and after I’ve tried whatever mysterious thing I’m going to try, I’ll then do whatever we’re talking about me doing as well. See? Are you following this? Do you get it? Please tell me you get it…

‘To all intensive purposes…’: no! No, no, no, no, no! What on earth does an intensive purpose have to do with anything!? You might have an intensive purpose, but it doesn’t mean jack in the context of what you just said! As with other misused phrases, I can’t help but wonder what the ‘intensive purposes’ user actually thinks of the words they’re using, particularly since most people do use the (misused) phrase in the right context. Do they ever wonder what an ‘intensive purpose’ has to do with anything, when they clearly know they’re just using a fancier-sounding version of “essentially”?

‘I Use To…’: no! It’s ‘I used to’. When you say you ‘used to’ do something, you mean that it’s something you did in the past. It’s a past-tense thing. Dropping the ‘d’ changes the meaning of what you’re saying entirely – something I use to help me clean the glass, something I use to wash the car with, something I use… it’s just different. ‘Use’ is present-tense, it’s now, it’s something you do and not something you did before or don’t do any more. You’ve heard the Gotye song haven’t you, “Somebody That I Used To Know”? Everyone in the whole world has heard that song and what a wonderful achievement in correct use of the English language it is too! Hang on, no it isn’t!

‘Somebody that’: – no! It’s ‘who’! Somebody who I used to know. Someone who I trust. People who do certain things. Only inanimate objects – i.e. not living creatures – are described as ‘that’. The building that wouldn’t fall down. The day that rocked the world. The scandal that toppled a Prime Minister. Rule of thumb: if you’re talking about a person, whoever it is, unless you intend to pour scorn and venom all over them by using the word ‘that’ to refer to them (i.e. I will not associate with that revolting thing over there!”) then it’s only polite to describe them as a person and not a thing.

It’s always the little words too. Well, almost always. It’s the smallest words that often make the biggest difference to what we say, every single day. If the average English speaker would only think about the words they used, rather than just saying words that sound right, it’d become pretty clear almost immediately that ‘would of’, ‘use to’, ‘other then’ and the like just don’t make sense.

But I don’t think many people care too much about what they say any more.

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