Popular English expressions we should get right

There are some popular sayings, proverbs and idioms that speakers (predominantly non-native) of English language have used incorrectly over the years. I had firsthand experience of these misconceptions that were (and are still) taught by parents, teachers, peers, etc. around the world. Consequently, it is a propitious time to correct a few of them, so let’s spread the word from here.

The point is that sayings, proverbs and idioms do not change—they are fixed and regular. Similarly, collocation is the use of certain words or phrases together. There are no reasons for using them together, they just sound correct to people who have used them all their lives—native speakers.

  1. Temper justice with mercy (not Tamper justice with mercy)

If people do what the incorrect version says, justice would have been dead a long time ago. To ‘tamper’ is to make changes without permission, especially to damage. ‘Temper’ means to make something less strong or extreme.

This expression is used to plead for lighter punishment for an offence.


  1. Forewarned is forearmed (not To be forewarned is to be forearmed)

‘To be forewarned is to be forearmed’ was actually what I was taught, but it is simply ‘forewarned is forearmed’. It is used to say that if you have the knowledge of a problem before it occurs, you will be prepared for it.


  1. He who laughs last laughs longest/best (either of longest or best is acceptable)

It is a popular expression used to emphasize that the person who has control of a situation in the end is the most successful, even if other people had seemed to have an advantage.


  1. What‘s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander (not What’s good for the goose is good for the gander)

For a long time, everyone I knew used the wrong version, and some still do. It’s an old saying but still relevant. It means if someone is allowed to do something, another should be allowed to do that same thing, too.


  1. Birds of a feather flock together (not Birds of the same feather flock together)

Personally, I used ‘birds of the same feather…’ for a long time before I realized I had been wrong. This expression means people that have things in common are usually seen together. It is often used when you think such association will bring no good.


        6. Practice makes perfect (not Practice makes perfection)

This popular saying wouldn’t have bothered anyone but another version (practice makes perfection) became popular some years ago and got us confused. Now we know better.

This saying is used to encourage someone to continue to do something so that they can master it.


  1. You can’t have your cake and eat it too (not You can’t eat your cake and have it)

This is a popular one that tends to generate a lot of arguments every day. Some say it would be logical to say ‘you can’t eat your cake and have it’. However, ‘you can’t have your cake and eat it’ is logical because, literally, you must have your cake before you can think of eating it, and it’s either you continue to hold it or you eat it—not do both.

The expression means you can’t have or do two things that are impossible to have or do together. Note that the last word (too) is optional.


  1. As and when due or As and when(not As at when due or As at when )

Have you heard people say ‘as at when due’ even in formal settings? I do every day. The expressions are ‘as and when due’ and ‘as and when’. They simply mean something happens as it dues and when it dues — at the appropriate time. So we could say ‘as and when due’, ‘as and when we arrive’, ‘as and when he returns’, etc.


  1. The benefit of the doubt (not Benefit of doubt)

 ‘Benefit of doubt’ is common, but definite article ‘the’ is supposed to appear twice. You give somebody ‘the benefit of the doubt’ because you cannot prove they are lying or you decide to trust them and believe the good thing(s) about them.


  1. With flying colours (not In flying colours)

If you do something with flying colours (e.g. pass an exam), you do it very successfully.


11. Exam (do, take, sit but not write)

This falls under collocation. We ‘do’ an exam, ‘take’ an exam (common in American English), ‘sit’ an exam (common in British English), but we do not ‘write’ an exam. ‘Sit for’ an exam is not used in British English, but it is possible in American English.

Also read: 11 words we might use incorrectly our entire lives


3 thoughts on “Popular English expressions we should get right

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