Watch out for these irksome idioms

Posted on April 29, 2024

Idioms are one of the characteristics that give a language its unique flavour, adding interest and energy to our writing and speech. But idioms that are used over a period of decades (or even centuries) may evolve into different and sometimes less desirable forms, leaving speakers wondering which version is correct. Below are three common idioms that often give rise to confusion.

“I could/couldn’t care less”

From the perspective of logic, there’s a clear winner in the contest between “I could care less” and “I couldn’t.” The only logical choice is the original phrasing: “I couldn’t.”

This idiom is used to mean that the speaker is completely indifferent to something: “So what if my old boyfriend can’t come to the party! I couldn’t care less!” If I couldn’t care any less than I do, then I care the least possible amount; that is, I don’t care at all.

On the other hand, if I could care less, then that means that I do care to some degree. And that’s the opposite of the intended meaning.

Of course, as some argue, since “I could care less” is an idiom – and an informal one, at that – it doesn’t have to be logical. Well, that may be true … but the bottom line is this: no one will object (at least from the standpoint of language) if you say you couldn’t care less, whereas many will be justifiably annoyed if you say you could. So do your listeners a favour and use “couldn’t care less,” the version that makes sense.

“You have another thing/think coming”

Here’s another idiom that’s been mangled over time. The original version (which has been around since the 1800s) is “have another think coming.”

This expression makes perfect sense, since “to have a think” means to give some thought to an issue: “Before deciding, I need to sit down and have a think about all my options.” By extension, “to have another think” means simply to think again, to reconsider one’s initial assumptions. And that’s exactly what we’re telling people to do when we use this idiom: “If you imagine I’m going to pay your share of the rent, you’ve got another think coming!”

In comparison, the misspelt variant “have another thing coming” is meaningless. What thing are we talking about? But it’s easy to see how this variant came into being. In speech, the k at the end of “think” merges with the hard c at the start of “coming,” so that “think coming” sounds just like “thing coming.”

In writing, however, the difference is visible, and we urge you to use the original phrase “have another think coming,” which, once again, is the version that makes sense.

“If worst/worse comes to worst”

This last idiom is the exception to the rule: in this case, it’s the original version that seems a bit lacking in the logic department.

The earliest evidence for this expression comes from the 16th century, when it took the form “if the worst come to the worst.” And it wasn’t just a printing error, either, because the expression was used by a number of acclaimed writers over the centuries and has persisted to the present day. But if something is in its worst possible state, it’s already as bad as it can be. Can something really go from worst to … even worst?

By the 18th century, the first “worst” had begun to evolve into “worse”; and in time we arrived at the version more common today: “if worse comes to worst.” Most modern speakers seem to feel that going from worse to worst shows a gradual downward spiral that fits the intended meaning.

However, it must be admitted that both variants of this idiom remain in use and are considered acceptable. So you can cling to tradition and go from worst to worst; or you can adopt a more modern approach, proceeding logically from worse to worst. The choice is yours!

What about you? Do you have any pet peeves in the world of idioms? Are there any expressions that set your teeth on edge? Tell us about them in the comments section.


The opinions expressed in posts and comments published on the Our Languages blog are solely those of the authors and commenters and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Language Portal of Canada.

Get to know Sheila Ethier

Sheila Ethier

Sheila Ethier has taught English and translation at the post-secondary level and has many years’ experience in translation. She enjoys creating content for the Portal.




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