Category Archives: malapropism

Something of a Malapropism

Sorry about the time off. It was a completely unnecessary hiatus, but if you ever needed to know how long you could go without paying your Dreamhost bill before the plug was pulled, the answer is about six months. Also, if you ever needed to know when it was going to happen, the answer is, “Right after you just spent almost everything you’ve got on new tires.”

Check out the number of Google blogsearch hits you get when you search for the phrase somewhat of a, as in He’s somewhat of a chauvinist. Now check out the number of Google blogsearch hits you get when you search for the phrase something of a, as in She’s something of a busybody. As of this writing, the somethings outnumber the somewhats by about 428,000 to 179,000. Are the two interchangeable, or is one of them correct?

Let’s consider how the words are used otherwise. Something is clearly a word one uses as a noun, as in I seem to have misplaced something. What are you looking for? I’m looking for something.

Somewhat is used to modify (that is, to give more information about) an adjective. How hungry are you? Somewhat hungry. How jealous is he? Somewhat jealous. As you know, an adjective modifies (that is, gives more information about) a noun. That’s a car! That’s an expensive car! That’s a somewhat expensive car!

In these examples, expensive modifies car (it gives us an idea of the cost of the car), while somewhat modifies expensive (it tells us how expensive).

You get bonus points if you remembered that when a word modifies an adjective, it serves as an adverb. However, if you didn’t know that (and still don’t), it’s okay, as long as you remember that when you’re talking about a person, place, or thing, use something of a. Here are a few examples, so you can see it correctly at work.

  • California is something of a laid-back state.
  • Julia Stiles is something of a talented-yet-unproven actress.
  • That bedroom of yours is something of a disaster area.

Do you see how something of a modifies all of laid-back state?

Of course, you can rearrange these sentences just slightly, and you’ll be able to use somewhat, but not somewhat of a, which is just about always incorrect.

  • California is somewhat laid-back.
  • Julia Stiles is somewhat talented.
  • That bedroom of yours is somewhat disastrous.

Yes, the meanings are changed ever so slightly, but at least you’re correct now, right?

Now, who’s volunteering to click over to 179,000 blogs in order to leave comments linking to this entry? Anyone?

What the Heck Did YOU Have for Lunch?

You know what it means when the rain has abated, yes? Did you also know that abated and bated are the same word? Bated is a shortened form of abated, and was introduced about a hundred years after abated. It basically means to stop or to slow down.

So does it make more sense to wait for someone with baited breath or with bated breath? Exactly! When we tell people we will wait for them with bated breath, it means that we are holding our breaths in anticipation, a sort of flipside to the “don’t hold your breath” cliche.

Don’t ask me what it means when we say we will wait for them with baited breath. You’re on your own there, buddy! According to a Google blogsearch, most people still use this cliche correctly: Bated breath currently outhits baited breath by about nine thousand search results. Let us hope the correct usage does not lose any more ground!

Even if I am between a rock and the deep blue sea, I am gonna fix this thing!

The title of this post is a quote from a cute, fun film called Trixie, starring Emily Watson as a private investigator who mixes metaphors and destroys cliches on the way to solving difficult mysteries. The film’s tagline is, “The only crime she couldn’t solve was the murder of the English language.” She also says, for example, “What a load of lame duck! Do who hear yourself when you speak?”

Unless you have a very, very good reason to use a cliche, you should avoid it in your formal writing anyway, but if you’re going to use it, use it correctly. When Trixie messes up a cliche, it’s endearing. When you do it in your formal writing, it’s condemnable unless you make it clear that you are misquoting the cliche intentionally as a stylistic device.

I have recently heard three very ugly misspoken cliches:

  1. The oh mighty dollar.
  2. He going to have to learn to tow the line.
  3. That will fit the bill nicely.

The correct phrases are, of course, “the almighty dollar,” “toe the line,” and “foot the bill.” You can see that the last two actually make dramatic changes in meaning when misused in the examples. The first still works, except that it’d kind of stupid-sounding.

Avoid sending the wrong message; if you must use a cliche, make sure you are using it correctly!