Phrases We Love to Misuse

The proof is in the pudding
This kind of makes sense, perhaps if you grew up in a culture where it is common to put a coin or other prize in a festive dessert (like the English at Christmas or the French on the jour des Rois).

But that isn’t the origin of the phrase. In its full, correct form, it’s the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

In other words, you don’t know what the thing is going to taste like until you actually sample it. Also applied metaphorically to any situation or thing that needs to be tested before you can say it worked.

For all intensive purposes
A friend suggested I include this, but I didn’t think people actually said it – until I heard it recently at a meeting. Cringe.

A malapropism for for all intents and purposes, of course.

This begs the question
Often used by someone who wants to say, ‘This raises another issue …’ – but it’s not quite what the phrase means.

To trot out some Latin (never to be used again), the original expression is petitio principii, a rhetorical term for a statement containing circular reasoning.

That is, a statement that offers, as proof of its truth, another statement that itself requires proof: for example, ‘God is great because He is the Supreme Being.’

Sooner than later
This is now frequently heard (thank you, Drake). While it does make some sense, it lacks the elegance and completeness of thought of the original phrasing: sooner rather than later.

Is confusion with sooner or later at work?

I could care less
We’ve had this one before: see Accentuating the negative.

Pedants and other word nerds love to criticise I could care less, when it’s used to express lack of interest in something.

If you think about it, it actually means you do care about whatever it is, because it would be possible to care to a lesser degree. You should say you couldn’t care less if you don’t care at all.

The devil is in the details
Misused if you take the view that it’s a later variant of the original God is in the details.

They both mean the same thing: you cannot fully understand or appreciate something unless you look at the inner workings, the fine print, the subtleties. In the one version, those details will send you to perdition if overlooked; in the other, they are sublime.

Often attributed to the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969), but probably older.

Out of pocket
I didn’t realise people misused this until I went to a meeting at an accounting firm (where management-consulting-speak is much in evidence).

The person at the meeting used it to mean ‘unavailable, out of the office, out of the picture, inaccessible’. What it actually means is to have disbursed money from one’s actual or metaphorical pocket: I am out of pocket by about 20 bucks because I paid for everyone’s coffee.

Hell hath no fury
Completed by most with like a woman scorned, but this is a misquotation. The original (from William Congreve’s Mourning Bride (1697)):

Heav’n has no Rage like Love to Hatred turn’d,

Nor Hell a Fury like a Woman scorn’d.

But that brings us to a more important point. The ‘scorned woman’ business is more than a bit sexist, and most of the other phrases in today’s list (with the possible exception of I couldn’t care less) are decidedly shopworn.

You’d be better to avoid hackneyed expressions and tired old proverbs, in favour of wording that is direct and original.

Next week: helpful (but unreliable) software tools

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)


  1. Is out of the pocket perhaps a newer iteration of the phrase which stems from the passing pocket in football? In other words: “the quarterback is out of the pocket”.

  2. I stopped using the phrase “begs the question” because I refuse to use it for its more popular meaning. I also think the proper use confuses some people. Since I usually communicate to clarify, I usually just steer clear of the phrase altogether.

  3. Why is everybody “cringing” at things these days? Are we now so pusillanimous that even a minor and inconsequential malapropism will cause one (1) to recoil in distaste, (2) to shrink in fear or servility, (3) to behave in an excessively humble or servile way or (4) to draw in or contract one’s muscles involuntarily?

    Whatever happened to raising an eyebrow?

  4. Out of pocket does mean “unavailable”. Its separate use in business contexts to mean “paying out of pocket (cash vs covered by insurance) doesnt negate its colloquial use (for a person to be unavailable or unable to be located).

  5. Sure, but that colloquial usage is illogical.

Leave a Reply

(Your email address will not be published or distributed)