12 Idioms Commonly Seen with Homonymic Spelling Errors
As, in time, idiomatic phrases become more isolated from their literal origins, writers are more likely to erroneously substitute a homonym (a word that sounds like another but is spelled differently and has a different meaning) for one of the words in the phrase. This post lists idioms that frequently appear with homonymic mistakes.
Incorrect: baited breath
Correct: bated breath
This phrase refers to abating, or stopping, breathing, and the related adjective bated is intended.
Incorrect: eek out
Correct: eke out
Eke originally meant “increase”; the verb is now obsolete except in the phrase pertaining to achieving after exerting effort; it has nothing to do with a squeal of surprise one might make when one is startled.
Incorrect: just desserts
Correct: just deserts
This idiom refers not to a sweet dish served after a main course but to what one justly deserves. Deserts is a noun, obsolete except in this usage, which refers to just that.
Incorrect: making due
Correct: making do
The expression pertaining to managing with available resources is “making do.”
Incorrect: marshal law
Correct: martial law
A marshal is a type of law-enforcement official, and to marshal is to order or organize, so this error is understandable, but the phrase refers to martial law, a state in which military forces maintain order under martial, or warlike, conditions.
Incorrect: peak (one’s) interest
Correct: pique (one’s) interest
In the sense of arousing interest, the correct verb is pique.
Incorrect: reign in
Correct: rein in
This phrase refers to managing someone or something as if one were using reins on a horse to control its movement, hence “rein in.”
Incorrect: sewing doubts
Correct: sowing doubts
This phrase refers to planting doubts as if they were seeds—thus, “sowing doubts.”
Incorrect: slight of hand
Correct: sleight of hand
This idiom is sometimes misunderstood to refer to deceptive movement so slight as to be undetectable, but the key word is sleight, meaning “dexterity.”
Incorrect: to the manner born
Correct: to the manor
It is natural to assume that this phrase alludes to being born in a certain manner—specifically, “in an affluent environment”—but “to the manor
born” pertains to those born in a manor, as opposed to a more humble dwelling.
Incorrect: tow the line
Correct: toe the line
The phrase alluding to placing one’s feet right on a line and not stepping over it is “toe the line.”
Incorrect: wet your appetite
Correct: whet your appetite
This idiom refers to sharpening one’s desire for something, not moistening it. Whet means “sharpen by rubbing against,” as with a whetstone against a knife, and the correct phrase is “whet your appetite.”