Hello everyone! It’s Miss Elysia, an English teacher at Lil’ but Mighty!
Today, we’re going to touch on something I’ve been excited to talk about – creative writing and composition! I’m sure most of you are aware that the composition paper tests both content and language. You need to have a good story that links to the topic, but you also need to have outstanding phrases that will do justice to the storyline in your head!
Some of you may already have pet phrases you like to use to enhance your writing, such as certain idioms and proverbs you are familiar with, and that’s a perfect start. I’m going to add to that list by sharing 5 commonly used but often confused phrases that, if used erroneously, will probably cause your teachers to scratch their heads rather than nod in appreciation. For each phrase, I will also share the right way to use it in your writing. Let’s hop right into it!
1. Baited breath vs. Bated breath
Correct: Bated breath
Incorrect: Baited breath
Meaning: feeling anxious or excited about something
I have seen one too many student misspell “baited breath” when they were really trying to say “bated breath”! One day, I could not help but ask one of them why they often spelt “bated” as “baited”. It turns out, there’s a bit of a misconception here. Many students see “baited” and assume that it means something exciting, like when you bait a fish. That’s why they assume that bated breath, expressing excitement, is spelt “baited breath” where you bait your breath.
While I was convinced for a few milliseconds, eventually I had to explain to the student that the word “bate” in bated breath actually means “to lessen in severity or amount”. When used in “bated breath”, it means for you to almost hold your breath in anticipation of an upcoming event. Hopefully, that clarifies this phrase for you, and you’ll no longer make this mistake in your compositions!
2. Nip it in the butt vs. Nip it in the bud
Correct: Nip (something) in the bud
Incorrect: Nip (something) in the butt
Meaning: to stop something before it becomes a bigger problem
Often, when I mention this phrase in class, I get more than a handful of giggles. “Butt!!” a brave student would mock-whisper under his or her breath. It’s hilarious, and I love it as it gives me an opening to tell them that unfortunately, they’re thinking of the wrong “bud”. It is tempting to think of kicking someone in the butt to prevent him or her from becoming a problem in future, as many students have expressed was how they understood this phrase.
However, the actual meaning is much more demure. This phrase makes reference to horticulture, where the unwanted plants are trimmed when they are still budding to prevent them from blossoming into a flower or fruit. Thus, to nip something in the bud is to stop something before it develops into something bigger and more difficult to handle.
3. Peaked my interest vs. Piqued my interest
Correct: Piqued my interest
Incorrect: Peaked my interest
Meaning: To make you feel interested in something
Many people have the misconception that the word “piqued” should be spelt as “peaked” because “peaked” indicates maximum interest in something.
However, if you look at the meaning of this phrase, it is actually used to indicate a sudden interest, or the beginning of an interest. It does not mean that you’re extremely excited to learn about it! Therefore, the correct word to use is “piqued”, which means to arouse something – in this case your interest or curiosity – in someone or something.
4. Tow the line vs. Toe the line
Correct: Toe the line
Incorrect: Tow the line
Meaning: To do something that other people say you should do, whether you agree with them or not
I’m not certain where this misconception came from, but I did have one student tell me that he simply doesn’t think that toes are very much linked to following orders and instructions. Well, he does have a point!
In this case, to “toe the line” means, in its most basic sense, to keep in line. Simply imagine a line in front of you, and all of your classmates touching the tip of their toes to the imaginary line. Immediately, you have a straight line of students, all perfectly lined up and ready to follow instructions from the teacher! With this image in mind, to “toe the line” is a metaphor used to express how one follows instructions perfectly and does what other people request, especially when unwilling to do so in the first place.
5. Breach the subject vs. Broach the subject
Correct: Broach the subject
Incorrect: Breach the subject
Meaning: To bring up something that may be embarrassing, unpleasant, or cause an argument
In this case, the key to understanding if we should use “broach” or “breach” lies in the definitions of the words themselves. To broach is to bring up something that is difficult to talk about. In contrast, to breach is to break something (eg. breach a contract, breach a dam). Once you are aware of the difference in meaning between broach and breach, it becomes more difficult to mix them up. After all, it is impossible to break a subject, isn’t it?
I hope this post was helpful in clarifying these commonly confused phrases for you! While it is great to use good vocabulary and fancy english phrases in your composition, you must take extra care to ensure that you use these phrases correctly.
To all the budding writers out there, don’t be afraid to take the leap of confidence and use phrases you might be unsure of in your composition practices. Making these errors early in your writing endeavours will help you learn from your mistakes and produce better stories in future attempts. Remember that writing is a process, and you will learn from trial and error. Keep writing, little writers!
Do you have a favourite idiom or phrase you have used in your writing? Share with us in the comments below!
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