background image 16

Sheridan’s 18th century play, The Rivals, featured a hilarious character called Mrs Malaprop, who was apt to drop a verbal clanger whenever she opened her mouth. That’s where we get the word malapropism from, though its real origin is in the French phrase mal à propos, meaning inopportune or not to the purpose.

When someone uses a malapropism, it’s because:

  • they’ve used a word that was not what they intended, given the context
  • the word used sounds similar to the one intended
  • the word used actually means something different (in other words, it’s not a made up word)

Malapropisms are often the same part of speech, begin or end in the same way or have the same rhythm when spoken.

Here are a few malapropisms. Feel free to add a few of your own in the comments thread.

From The Rivals

  • “He’s as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile.” (alligator)
  • “He is the very pineapple of politeness.” (pinnacle)
  • “I am sorry to say, Sir Anthony, that my affluence over my niece is very small.” (influence)
  • “I thought she had persisted from corresponding with him;” (desisted)
  • “Make no delusions to the past.” (allusions)

From The Other Pages

  • Damp weather is very hard on the sciences. (sinuses)
  • Having one wife is called monotony. (monogamy)
  • A rolling stone gathers no moths. (moss)

Stop making those embarrassing mistakes! Subscribe to Daily Writing Tips today!

You will improve your English in only 5 minutes per day, guaranteed!

Each newsletter contains a writing tip, word of the day, and exercise!

You'll also get three bonus ebooks completely free!

14 thoughts on “Malapropisms”

  1. If you’re giving grammar lessons, you might want to learn some yourself. You should know that ‘they’ refers to MORE THAN ONE PERSON, and the correct statement above should read “he’s used a word that was not what they intended, given the context,” rather than “they’ve.” Spare us.

  2. Whoops, I mean “he’s used a word that was not what HE intended, given the context.”

    You’ve just made too many mistakes to correct them all in one sitting, I suppose.

  3. Jon, as much as I don’t like it, “they” has become the “pc” nongender identifier over the last few years. Personally “they” rubs me the wrong way. But I’d never be rude enough to post what you did here; rather, perhaps a private email may have been the proper route to take.

  4. I do find it strange how people get so aggressive when posting comments online – especially about grammar 😉

    Jon, ‘they’ has always been used for the 3rd person singular when the sex of the person referred to is unknown – Though it may be used more in these pc times, I’m pretty sure I remember my Latin teacher suggesting it came from that language, so hardly a modern phenomena!

    This is a really great site, which provides clear explanations of some complex grammar issues for free. Jon, you should really check your facts before posting confrontational comments!

  5. “This is a really great site, which provides clear explanations of some complex grammar issues for free.”
    should be:
    “This is a really great site that provides clear explanations of some complex grammar issues for free.”

  6. Karl,

    The first sentence uses a non-essential clause, the second an essential clause. Both are grammatically correct but the emphasis does change slightly.

    I possibly prefer your revision but you can’t state which is wrong or right as I’m stating an opinion, so the importance of the sub clause to the first part of the sentence is really up to me.

    Anyway, it really isn’t worth worrying about…

    ‘[P]eople are confused about which and that… This isn’t surprising, as there has been a shift in usage over the past century or so and older guides give different advice from newer ones… If you wish to write naturally, don’t fuss too much about the usage of that versus which. Obsessive correction (sarcastically called a which hunt) is best avoided’ (

  7. Sarah,
    When it comes to using plural pronouns in the place of singular, I choose to side with Jon. I too cringe at this abuse finding it annoying, particularly since I rarely heard it before the feminist movement of the 70’s. The accepted usage before that time was the masculine form of the pronoun when the gender of its antecedent was unknown. This was not a disrespectful usage, but only a way to avoid saying “him or her” or “his or her”. The growth of the use of “they”, “their”, or “them” seems to correspond with the growth of the paranoid fear of offending (later known as “political correctness). By the way, Latin was a dead language even when this old duffer took 4 years of it. I do not recall any example either in the teaching or in the literature where a plural pronoun (or the equivalent verb form) was used to mean a single person of unknown gender. Have you an example?

  8. Sarah,
    p.s. The use of the plural “phenomena” as a singular noun is not necessary as “phenomenon” has no gender.

    p.p.s. I really enjoy this site.

  9. As fans of THE BOWERY BOYS and “Slip” Mahoney, long before we read Sheridan’s THE RIVALS, my high school friends and I came up with our own malapropism: when we were planning to meet for lunch, for after school activities, etc., we would “scrutinize” our watches rather than
    “synchronize” them! We thought we were sooooo clever!

  10. Following up on the Bowery Boys, Ann reminded me, (and made me giggle to myself), of Sach’s line in an episode…..”we can’t go out now guys, it participating out, and we’d get soaked”.

  11. You asked for examples of malapropisms :
    Here is a glorious one in a just-published review of Year 2011
    by the Peasedown St.John Community Association ( Beacon Hall ) :

    ( re Christmas 2011 ) “…..Peasedown Puppets entertained children and adults alike with their music and naivety play” ( nativity )

Leave a Comment