A Word, Please: Whet your grammar skills with this list of common terms people get wrong

Alan Blumenfeld
Alan Blumenfeld plays Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice,” from which we have the expression “bated breath,” writes grammar columnist June Casagrande.
(File Photo)

When I was a kid, I thought people struggled to “make En’s meat.” I didn’t know who En was — someone from the Bible, most likely — but I knew he was a carnivore who ran up big grocery bills. I was still young when I learned that, actually, you “make ends meet.”

Other terms took longer to get right. Well into adulthood I remained baffled as to why a fair-haired child was toe-headed. Toes come in a wide range of colors. So I didn’t see what they had to do with blondness. Eventually I learned it’s “towheaded.” This one doesn’t have the “Ah, that makes sense” quality of “make ends meet.” A grownup reading the term “towhead” could be forgiven for picturing a human head being dragged behind a AAA truck. Plus, with both Merriam-Webster’s and Webster’s New World in agreement that the preferred spelling of “towheaded” takes no hyphen, that same adult might understandably see the word on the page and hear in her mind’s ear “too-weeded.”

With a little etymological research, towheaded makes sense: “Tow” can mean flax fibers, which explains the origin of “towheaded” to suggest someone is flaxen-haired.

Here are a few of the more interesting language issues this copy editor came across last week.

But these are just my personal experiences mishearing expressions. Everyone has them. Here are some common terms people get wrong.

Bated breath. We modern English speakers don’t use “bate” as a verb. So it’s logical to assume the term is “baited breath.” But in fact, “bated” derives from the verb “abated,” and “bated breath” gets credited to Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice”: “Or shall I bend low and in a bondsman’s key, with bated breath and whisp’ring humbleness, say this …” So to wait with bated breath means you’re holding your breath, literally or figuratively, in anticipation. “Baited breath” is, as Garner’s Modern American Usage puts it, “a bungle.”

Spit and image/spitting image. Chances are you’ve heard someone say that a child is the “spit and image” of a parent. Or did they say “spitting image”? On the one hand, it seems odd that someone would call a child saliva. On the other hand, it’s easy to picture a grizzled prospector in an Old West saloon saying, “I’ll be hogtied if that boy don’t look exactly like his father,” then loudly pinging a spittoon for emphasis.

But in fact, the expression is rooted in the Bible story of God using spit to make Adam in his own image. In the early 1800s, the term “spit and image” started appearing in print, putting a new spin on the creation story. So the original term is “spit and image.” But language evolves. Today, as Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage puts it: “‘Spitting image … has now established itself as the usual form.” That means you can use either.

For all intents and purposes. It’s pretty common to hear this one as “for all intensive purposes.” But it makes less sense than the original, proper “for all intents and purposes.” The expression means two things are basically the same, as in, “The office manager is, for all intents and purposes, the chief executive officer.”

Whet your appetite. To take a drink is to wet your whistle. That’s easy to conflate with “whet your appetite,” but they’re different verbs. You don’t douse your appetite with liquid. You make it more keen or acute, as in this example from Merriam-Webster’s dictionary: “We had some wine to whet our appetite.”

Bald-faced lie. A bald-faced lie is brazen. It’s bold. See where I’m going with this? It’s easy to substitute “bold-faced” instead. “Bald-faced” means shameless or brazen — so that’s how you lie. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary does not list “bold-faced” as an alternative to “bald-faced,” meaning they’re not interchangeable. The dictionary defines “bold-faced” as “bold in manner or conduct, impudent.” So it seems better suited to describing a person than describing a lie. Can’t choose? “Barefaced lie” is another option.

June Casagrande is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at

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