How not to write the way dumb people think smart people write

Don Marti has written an amusing and informative little post about the way that ill-educated people use phrases in print [1]. The one example that didn’t fit with the tone of his post was the use of “half mast” to refer to a flag on land, that one is used often enough (both in print and verbally) that intelligent people will make that mistake.

Here are some that he missed:

  1. The expression “bailing them out” can be used to refer to someone who helps someone escape from a difficult situation. That might refer to bailing water from a leaky boat or might refer to posting bail to secure someone’s release from prison while awaiting trial. It certainly doesn’t refer to baling which is the creation of a bundle (such as a bale of hay). I’m sure that a farmer would appreciate some help at baling time, but such help would hardly qualify as rescue from a difficult situation.
  2. The expression “woe is me” is used (usually in a sarcastic manner) to refer to someone who feels that their situation is sorrowful. It is not “whoah is me“, I suspect that the word whoah was invented long after the expression “woe is me” became commonly used.
  3. Made up words such as worserer and worstest. I can understand that people such as Keith Olbermann [2] may find it a challenge to describe some of the bad people in the world, but he is articulate enough to rise to that challenge while using real words.

Can anyone add any more to this list?

4 comments to How not to write the way dumb people think smart people write

  • -dsr-

    It’s true: “woe” is Old English (10th C and earlier) and is similar to words all the way back to Greek. “Whoa” can only be dated as far back as 1623… when it meant pretty much the same as it does now: a call for attention, later specifically a call to slow or stop.

  • Neil McGovern is a nice list of common errors.

  • etbe

    Neil: That’s an amazing reference!

    The above URL has a post referencing mine, but giving more coverage to Linux device drivers and thrips than correct usage of the English language.

  • jimcooncat

    I’ve been seeing too many forum posts lately which people use “loose” instead of “lose”.


    This confusion can easily be avoided if you pronounce the word intended aloud. If it has a voiced Z sound, then it’s “lose.” If it has a hissy S sound, then it’s “loose.” Here are examples of correct usage: “He tends to lose his keys.” “She lets her dog run loose.” Note that when “lose” turns into “losing” it loses its “E.”

    So if you let your dog loose, you might lose her. Now you are a loser because you’re the one who loosed the collar. Don’t you feel lost now?