5 Cases of Erroneous Usage

By Mark Nichol

Writers who have misheard words and expressions or remember them imperfectly are prone to misrepresenting them in their prose. The following sentences include examples of such errors, followed by discussion and revision.

1. Trustees—jail inmates selected for jobs like food preparation and garbage collection—were sneaking drugs in on food trays.

A trustee is a person or organization that manages money or property for someone else or a person who serves on a board. The appropriate term in this sentence is the plural of the noun trusty: “Trusties—jail inmates selected for jobs like food preparation and garbage collection—were sneaking drugs in on food trays.”

2. Her tongue-and-cheek comment was inappropriate for the occasion.

A writer unfamiliar with the idiomatic phrase denoting irony, insincerity, or whimsy has mistaken one of the words in the phrase for another: “Her tongue-in-cheek comment was inappropriate for the occasion.”

3. The galley on this sailboat looks as if it could be a kitchen in a home in a housing track.

Here, a writer has presumably misheard the term tract—referring in this context to a housing development, as track—and is unaware of the distinction: “The galley on this sailboat looks as if it could be a kitchen in a home in a housing tract.”

4. In this type of story, the hero undergoes a right of passage.

This sentence refers to a ritual, not something one is entitled to: “In this type of story, the hero undergoes a rite of passage.”

5. Smith has a Masters of education and spent several decades as a schoolteacher.

Masters is the plural form of master. Master’s is the possessive form, which is what is appropriate here. Also, though it is implicit that degree is what “belongs” to the master, it’s best to include the word and to use the pertinent preposition: “Smith has a master’s degree in education and spent several decades as a schoolteacher.” (Also, as shown in the revision, a word denoting a level of degree is not capitalized.)

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3 Responses to “5 Cases of Erroneous Usage”

  • John Charles Grandy

    I may be mistaken but you said the galley was on the sailboat. You should say that the galley is in the sailboat. Thank you.

  • Duncan

    Yes.., as you said, Mr. Grandy, you ARE indeed wrong; a captain’s quarters is ‘on’ a boat; a wheelhouse is ‘on’ a boat; and, most certainly, a galley is ‘on’ a sailboat. On the other hand, a galley is ‘in’ a magazine.
    You could also think of it like this: a horses reins are on the horse…, even though they are partially ‘in’ the horse’s mouth.
    It’s all ‘relative’ speak.

    Regards,
    Duncan

  • venqax

    2 that I have to add (if they are not already there) to any list of misused words are insure/ensure and enormity/enormousness. They make me hypervenerate.

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