Grammar Gremlins: Phrased and Confused

The latest addition to the Gremlins’ reference shelf (actually, the Kindle collection) is American Heritage’s 100 Words Almost Everyone Mixes Up or Mangles. In truth few of the words in this volume are ones I often see misused, but the list does include a few interesting phrases that all too often have one word go astray.


Beyond the pale, meaning “outside the limits of acceptability,” has nothing to do with pails, buckets, or light colors. Pale in this sense is an old word meaning stake or picket used to mark boundaries. In the sixteenth century, the part of Ireland ruled by the British was known as the English Pale, and the lands outside the boundaries of the Pale were hostile and dangerous. Thus, beyond the pale (no longer capitalized) has come to mean anything outside the boundaries (the boundaries of what depends on your point of view).


Free rein (or less often full rein), meaning “unlimited freedom to act or make decisions,” comes from the practice of letting the reins go slack and leaving the decisions to the horse. Given the meaning, it’s understandable that the phrase is sometimes rendered as free reign, but it originated with horses, not kings.


No holds barred, not surprisingly, comes from wrestling, and means “without limits or restraints.” A wrestling match—or anything else—with no holds barred is a real free for all. The phrase is sometimes misinterpreted as no holes barred, which might also indicate freedom of movement, but somehow doesn’t give the same image.


Sleight of hand is a term everyone associates with magic, but because the word sleight is so unusual, it’s sometimes written as slight of hand. Sleight is a noun meaning “the use of dexterity or cunning,” and is related to the word sly. For more confusion: the French equivalent, legerdemain, translates as “light of hand.”


Toe the line or toe the mark means to do as ordered or expected, adhere to the rules. It’s not unusual to see this one written as tow the line. The image of someone hauling obediently on a rope isn’t too far off the idea of a soldier posed in formation or a racer at the starting block, both of which are, in fact, toeing a line.


Bonus points: Spell check is great, but it doesn’t handle everything. In a traditionally published and professionally edited book I’ve been reading, the police, searching a room, striped the mattress before turning it over. A few chapters later, one character caught site of another. Proof that neither spell check nor a human reader will catch all the errors.

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