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The Business English Phrases That Most People Get Wrong

Have you ever found yourself cringing after hearing someone say they love a good expresso? Or perhaps your boss has emailed you asking you to back your work up on a hard drive for piece of mind. If so, then you have some experience with mistaken terms and phrases that commonly pop-up in English conversation. These phrases often deviate so slightly from the correct version that native English speakers frequently get them wrong too.

In order to avoid making these prevalent errors and improve your English for the workplace, review the following list and then try using the correct words and idioms in your own sentences or dialogues!

Disclaimer: These phrases are pretty advanced, so if you get them all right, we are very impressed!

1) I could care less* → I couldn’t care less

While these two phrases sound very similar, they actually possess very different meanings. When you say, “I could care less,” it implies that you do care to some degree but that level could still be lowered. On the other hand, when you say that you “couldn’t care less,” it means that your level of care is already at zero, making it impossible to lower that level anymore.

Example: I heard that Bob got the promotion instead of me. But honestly, I couldn’t care less because I plan to give notice this Friday.

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2) Take something for granite* → Take something for granted

Granite is a type of rock. This phrase is likely misspoken due to simple listening comprehension errors. When we take something for granted, it means that we are not properly appreciating it, usually as a result of overfamiliarity.

Example: Most native English speakers take it for granted that their native language has become the lingua franca of the business world.

3) For all intensive purposes* → For all intents and purposes

This is another example of a phrase that audibly resembles the correct version. Intensive refers to situations where a lot of effort or activity is expended in a short period of time. So the incorrect phrase, “for all intensive purposes” nearly makes sense, but not quite. The true phrase can be used as a synonym for “virtually” or “in all practical and important ways.”

Example: The client is pushing for the website to go live. We’re still missing the customer contact form but for all intents and purposes we’re ready on our end too.

4) Escape goat* → Scapegoat

Here is yet another example of a common phrase being misheard or misunderstood. The correct term, scapegoat, refers to a person or thing who is blamed or punished for the faults of others. I’ve warned you, so if you happen to mistakenly say “escape goat” in the office, don’t try to name me as the scapegoat!

Example: Our department head is always using her intern as a scapegoat. She never takes responsibility when she makes mistakes!

5) To be at someone’s beckon call* → To be at someone’s beck and call

Beckon is a verb, which means to signal someone with your hand or arm in order to tell that person to come closer or follow. Since beckon is a verb, and verbs can’t describe nouns, we know “beckon call” is not the correct phrase. Instead, “to be at someone’s beck and call” means that you are ready to be responsive to another person’s slightest request or command. This idiom has a slightly negative connotation, meaning that it is usually used when a request or command seems unreasonable or entitled.

Example: The CEO requires his personal assistant to be at his beck and call 24/7, even on weekends!

6) Spurt of the moment* → Spur of the moment

Here is another example of a misheard phrase that nearly makes sense. Spurt is a verb, which means to pour or come out quickly and suddenly. Therefore, “spurt of the moment” could indicate that something begins happening or flowing quickly in a particular moment. However, the true idiom is at, or on, the “spur of the moment.” A spur is the sharp point attached to the heel of a horse rider’s boot that is used to prod the horse and make it go faster. The horse’s reaction is immediate and reflexive, which relates to the meaning of this idiom. “Spur of the moment” means to do something spontaneously and without planning.

Example: He was so charming so they hired him on the spur of the moment. Later, we found out he didn’t have the proper qualifications.

7) By in large* → By and large

In this commonly mistaken phrase, the preposition “in” replaces “and” and renders the phrase meaningless. The idiom “by and large” originates from a sailing term, which indicated that a ship was able to handle both agreeable and disagreeable weather. Nowadays, “by and large” can be used as a synonym for in general or overall.

Example: By and large, sales are much stronger this quarter compared to last.

8) Mute point* → Moot point

Mute is an adjective, describing someone or something that is not able or willing to speak. Therefore, this phrase nearly makes sense, referring to a point that is silent. The true phrase, “moot point,” describes an issue that has no real importance because it is hypothetical or merely based on theory.

Example: Yes I agree that the new software’s interface was much more user-friendly, but now that’s a moot point because the sales department has requested a complete interface overhaul.

9) Nip it in the butt* → Nip it in the bud

Here is an incorrect, comical misinterpretation of a real idiom. Nip is a verb which means to pinch or bite. Therefore the incorrect phrase, “nip it in the butt” would indicate that we’re pinching something on its butt. In actuality, this idiom signifies putting a stop to a problem while it’s still small. The origin of this idiom may come from a gardener removing the buds from plants before they begin to form shoots and grow out of control.

Example: Remember, this is highly confidential. We’d better nip this conversation in the bud before someone overhears us.

10) Deep-seeded* → Deep-seated

Yet another example of incorrect hearsay, something you heard from another person. “Deep seeded” does initially seem to make sense because seed is also a verb meaning to plant an area of ground with seeds. So, at face value, “deep-seeded” would seem to refer to something that is planted deeply. In fact, the correct phrase, “deep-seated” is quite similar and means that something is located far below the surface and is therefore firmly established.

Example: Since most of the company’s management is part of the old boys’ club, we have to deal with some subtle but deep-seated biases.

11) It’s a doggy-dog-world* → It’s a dog-eat-dog world

The phrase “doggy-dog-world” came into popular circulation when the rapper Snoop Dogg, released his popular song “Doggy Dog World” in 1993. The true idiom, “dog-eat-dog world,” refers to a world where the environment is so extreme that you must destroy your competitors or they will destroy you.

Example: Competition is so fierce. It’s a dog-eat-dog world for every company in the tech industry these days.

12) Shoe-in* → Shoo-in

“Shoe-in” is a common misspelling for the idiom “shoo-in.” The verb shoo means to tell an animal or person to go away by waving one’s arms or acting in a discouraging manner. This expression may come from corrupt horse racing, when jockeys would hold their horses back in order to shoo a predetermined winner across the finish line first. This idiom refers to something easily ushered or brought in.

Example: All of his qualifications go above and beyond the job posting. He’s a shoo-in for the position.

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13) Self-depreciating* → Self-deprecating

Another near miss. Depreciate is a verb that means to cause something to have a lower price or value. This is the reason some people mistakenly say they are making “self-depreciating” comments when they are being self-critical. Actually, the phrase is “self-deprecating,” which is an adjective that is used to make yourself, your abilities, and your achievements seem less important. “Self-deprecating” is usually used to describe a comment, manner, or a joke.

Example: Women often use self-deprecating humor to downplay their achievements in the office and make men feel more comfortable.

14) Fullproof* → Foolproof

“Foolproof” is an adjective which means that something is so reliable and well-constructed that it is certain to work properly or succeed. “Fullproof” does not have any real meaning but probably is intended to imply the same message, which is to say something is fully functional.

The term “goof-proof” is another more modern riff on “foolproof” and has the same meaning but should only be used in informal conversation.

Example: This marketing plan is extremely thorough. It’s so foolproof even a monkey could manage it.

15) Ex-patriot* → Expatriate

Close but no cigar! A patriot is a person who loves and strongly supports their country. Therefore, it would seem to make sense that an “ex-patriot” would be a person who no longer supports their country and perhaps left it. Unfortunately, “ex-patriot” is not a real term. An “expatriate” is someone who has left their motherland and lives in a foreign country. It is possible to be both an expatriate and a patriot at the same time.

Example: He likes working with other expatriates because they understand some of the cultural differences he faces in the workplace.

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[This article was originally posted on Oct 10, 2019 and updated on Feb 6, 2021]


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