12 Idioms Commonly Seen with Homonymic Spelling Errors

By Mark Nichol

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.

1.
Incorrect: baited breath
Correct: bated breath

This phrase refers to abating, or stopping, breathing, and the related adjective bated is intended.

2.
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.

3.
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.

4.
Incorrect: making due
Correct: making do

The expression pertaining to managing with available resources is “making do.”

5.
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.

6.
Incorrect: peak (one’s) interest
Correct: pique (one’s) interest

In the sense of arousing interest, the correct verb is pique.

7.
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.”

8.
Incorrect: sewing doubts
Correct: sowing doubts

This phrase refers to planting doubts as if they were seeds—thus, “sowing doubts.”

9.
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.”

10.
Incorrect: to the manner born
Correct: to the manor
born

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.

11.
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.”

12.
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.”

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5 Responses to “12 Idioms Commonly Seen with Homonymic Spelling Errors”

  • Dale A. Wood

    “There, their, they’re, my child, Poppa will make it all better,” LOL.

    Decades ago, when my daughter Sarah was a three-year-old, I was doing something in the kitchen when she ran in from the living room. She said, “Poppa, I hurt my finger!” I did not see any damage to it, so I took her hand in mine, and I kissed her finger. Sarah immediately smiled and went merrily away to continue with her playing.

  • Mark Nichol

    Melissa and Paul:
    You’re correct. I relied on my memory (sometimes a perilous strategy) and inadvertently reversed the valid and invalid forms. Thanks for your notes!

  • Paul Baldwin

    When I first read #10, I seemed to recall that this site had put forward the same valid information that is offered by M. Kiser in another comment. I checked and it seems to be so. In the explanation for item #7 of a post titled “12 Misunderstood and Misquoted Shakespearean Expressions” apparently first published in October 2012. In any case, Shakespeare contains multitudes.

  • Melissa Kiser

    Actually, #10 is correct as “to the manner born.” It’s a quotation from Hamlet, meaning accustomed to a certain mode of behavior. “To the manor born” appears frequently–such as in the title of a British situation comedy, where it was a deliberate pun–but it would mean something else, indicating that someone was born into the aristocracy. The original phrase and attendant meaning, however, are found in “to the manner born.” See also http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/to-the-manner-born.html.

  • venqax

    I think some of these arise because they employ words people are unfamiliar with: deserts (in this form), sleight, whet. pique, eke.
    Sometimes the correct form doesn’t get missed because the incorrect one actually seems, at least, to make a sort of sense; e.g. tow the line, as you mention.

    Incorrect: anchors away
    Correct: anchors aweigh

    Incorrect: card shark
    Correct: card sharp

    Incorrect:wheelbarrel
    Correct:wheelbarrow

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