Here’s a shocker: People don’t talk the way they write, or the way they should write. They have accents; they slur words or runthemtogether. They leave off the “g” at the end of lots of words, and they mispronounce some, forgetting an “r” in “libary” or “Febuary.”

But when people write, they should make sure those accents, elisions, and dropped letters go away (except when deliberately keeping them for effect). If they don’t, they take old phrases and sayings and print them, sometimes with unintended results.

We’ve already written how the phrase “home in on” threatens to become “hone in on,” and how almost no one knows that “you have another thing coming should really be “you have another think coming.” These changes often turn a phrase into something else.

For example, a TV news program had a background graphic with pictures of President Obama and Trayvon Martin to accompany its report on the president’s remarks. But the graphic read “One in the Same?”

Nuh, uh. Should have been “One and the Same?”

“One in/and the same” both make some sense, and most people probably say “one ‘n’ the same,” pronouncing “and” the same way they pronounce “in.” The phrase, which dates to the mid-1800s, means “identical.” Yes, it’s redundant, but as an idiom to emphasize that sameness, it works better with “and”; “one in the same” evokes one thing nested in the other, not two separate but identical things. “One in the same” shows up dozens of times each year in respectable publications; “one in the same” may one day become one and the same with “one and the same.” But not yet.

The same is true of “for all intensive purposes,” which should be “for all intents and purposes,” meaning “in effect.” Knowing that its origins are in British law, and that a standard phrase in contracts was “for [or “to”] all intents, constructions, and purposes,” might help you see why it must be “intents.” And how does an “intensive purpose” mean “in effect,” anyway? Nonetheless, “intensive purposes” show up a great deal in journalism.

Writers will frequently say that someone who is waiting with suspense for something to happen is “on tenderhooks” or waiting “with baited breath.” The words wanted in those phrases are “tenterhooks” and “bated.” But both words are less common than they used to be. “Tenterhooks” were nails used in a device called a “tenter” to stretch cloth that had just been woven; the cloth was suspended with a lot of tension. “To be on tenterhooks” arose in the 17th century, The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms says.

“Bated” arose with Shakespeare; it’s a shortened form of “abated.” Someone with “bated breath” is holding her breath with suspense. “Bated” almost never appears without “breath” these days, but “baited breath” appears nearly as often. Do you really want to put “bait”—a lure of some kind—on your breath while you’re waiting for something to happen? Wethinks not.

While we’re on breath, when you are just “a hair’s breath” from something, you’re missing it “by the skin of your teeth.” Now, teeth don’t have skin, and hair doesn’t have breath, so those seem to be equivalent phrases.

But think about it: If you are just “a hair’s breath” from danger, you are veryvery close. That distance is really measured not by a nonexistent exhalation, but by the width of one hair. Another word for “width” is “breadth,” though that word is hardly used today. So that close distance is “a hair’s breadth.”

You can also spell it as “hair’s-breadth,” “hairsbreadth,” or “hairbreadth,” depending on your dictionary or style guide or whether you’re using it as a noun or an adjective.

What you don’t want to do, though, is spell “hair” as “hare.” That wouldn’t be very lucky, since rabbits have nothing to do with it.

Next week, we’ll give you what’s almost a spit and image of this column: more of these twisted idioms.


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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years.