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The world of words, reading and writing

Sayings We’re Saying Wrong

Why are humans so good at saying everything other than what we truly mean? We have so many bizarre sayings I couldn’t even begin to catalogue them all. Some seem senseless and some are used by senseless people. I’ve compiled a little list of some of those sayings that just don’t make sense. You probably hear them often and you probably hear them being used incorrectly just as often.

‘I could care less’

This one drives me the most crazy. People say ‘I could care less’ to show how little they care about something, and yet if they could care less that means they care at least a little. What people should actually be saying is ‘I couldn’t care less’.

‘They did a complete 360’

This saying comes from the fact that there are 360 degrees in a circle, so 360 degrees is a full revolution that takes you back to your starting point. When people say ‘they did a complete 360’ they are actually saying that a person went back to the view or opinion that they originally held. When you mean that a person completely changed their views what you should actually say is they did a 180.

‘The exception that proves the rule’

This saying can actually be used properly although most people fail to do so. People incorrectly use it to discount contradictory evidence to a fact they have stated or observed.

‘John always wears blue pants.’

‘This morning he was wearing green pants.’

‘That’s the exception that proves the rule.’

In situations like this ‘the exception that proves the rule’ makes no sense. The exception has actually proved that no such rule exists. The correct usage of the phrase is for when the existence of an exception to a rule demonstrates that a rule exists. If a sign says ‘Free parking on Sundays’ then it is presumed that on all other days parking is not free. Therefore, free parking on Sunday is the exception that proves the existence of the rule ‘you must pay to park here’.

‘I slept like a baby’

This saying is used to express an excellent quality of sleep. It’s synonymous with ‘I slept soundly’ and yet anyone who has ever had a baby will be able to tell you that a baby’s sleep is the opposite of a peaceful sleep. Babies sleep in short interrupted cycles – hardly conducive to a good night’s rest.

‘beg the question’

A lot of people think this saying means a question that is begging to be asked or something which raises a question. Begging the question is actually a term used in philosophy to mean a circular argument that presumes the truth of the argument a person is trying to make. Its correct usage can be understood as follows:

If someone says, ‘Justin Bieber is the best ever because he’s better than everyone else’ this begs the question. The claim that Justin Bieber is better than everyone else can only be true if the conclusion that he’s the best is already true. Therefore this nine-year-old girl has begged the question because her argument presumes the truth of what she is trying to argue.

 

And just for fun, here’s an expression that sounds wrong but is actually right!

‘Below par’

People use ‘below par’ to describe something that is less than average or expected, as in ‘Susan’s work has been a bit below par lately’. But those familiar with how ‘par’ is used as a golfing expression may find this phrase confusing. In golf, par is the expected average number of shots a person should be able to make a hole in. Thus, scoring below par means that you took less shots than the average person, which is a good thing. Knowing this, it would seem as if performing below par would mean you are doing better than average, not worse. But this is where the English language’s tendency to double up on a word’s meaning creates confusion. In the context of ‘below par’, par refers to its usage in the late 1700s to mean the average amount or quality. So we actually are using this saying correctly.

Words aren’t flawed. People are.

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