Better Language Through Unicorns, Part 3: It’s Idiom Time

Oh, idioms. I can’t imagine how people ever manage to pick these up if they aren’t native speakers, considering how often those of us who have spoken English all our lives get these mixed up. Hopefully putting them in terms of unicorns will help us all finally get these phrases right.

Rein vs. Reign (vs. Rain)

These don’t get mixed up terribly often on their own, but in phrases, oy. Since reign means a period of rule and a rein is used to control a horse, you should say reign of terror when someone’s trying to impose bad shit on other people, but rein (it) in to tell them to stop or free rein if they’re allowed to continue without others controlling their actions. Rain obviously wouldn’t make sense in either phrase, but mercifully I’ve never seen it swapped for either of the others. (I hereby claim Rain of Terror as the idea for a truly awful SyFy original film.)

  • Unicorns go through toddler phases just like humans and can impose a reign of terror on parents who give them free rein, so it’s important to rein in some of their more destructive impulses.

Balling vs. Bawling Your Eyes Out

If you’re crying really hard, you’re bawlingBalling has all kinds of interesting definitions on Urban Dictionary, none of which you want people picturing when you’re writing about something heartbreaking. I see this one a lot and it makes me giggle uncontrollably every time.

  • Susie bawled her eyes out when she realized she couldn’t have a unicorn for a pet.

In Tow vs. Toe the Line

To tow something means to pull it behind you, whereas toe as a verb means walking, kicking, or tapping with your toes. Therefore, toe the line is the correct phrase when you want to talk about someone who’s walking on the metaphorical edge of what they’re supposed to do. (I suppose a tugboat could tow a line of smaller boats, but that usage seems more obvious.) If you have someone in tow, however, it means they’re following you (either literally or using you as an example of what to do).

  • The unicorn preschool teacher always has a group of youngsters in tow behind her. They act up from time to time, but she’s great at getting them to toe the line.

Peek vs. Peak vs. Pique

Ah, the mixup that gave rise to one of my favorite (sadly defunct) Twitter accounts of all time. Peek is a quick glance or the act of doing so, peak is a mountain or reaching a high point (literal or metaphorical), and pique can be a feeling of irritation or a verb meaning to irritate or cause a spike of emotion or excitement. So, if you get to see something in advance, it’s a sneak peek. If you’re intrigued by something, it piqued your interest. Ironically, while I’ve seen peak misapplied to both those phrases, I don’t think I’ve ever seen peek or pique substituted for peak.

  • I got a sneak peek at a new film about unicorns; it definitely piqued my interest. The director is at the peak of her career, and I hope she gets recognized come awards season. 

Sew Up vs. Sow Discontent

Since sow means to spread seeds and sew means to stitch things together, it definitely makes sense that the correct phrases here are to sow discontent (since the discontent is being spread around) and sew up support/a case/etc (since the result is being secured).

  • Pro-pegasus rebels tried to sow discontent ahead of parliamentary elections, but the Unicorns First party managed to sew up enough support to hold on to a majority of seats.

Bear Arms vs. Baring Your Soul

Look, I enjoy a good bare arms pun as much as the next person, especially if it involves Michelle Obama, and I’m always down with visual puns involving actual bears brandishing weapons, but when we’re talking about Second Amendment rights, the correct phrase is bear arms, as in to carry them. If you’re baring your soul, however, you are making a naked display of emotion.

  • Unicorns are pacifists at heart, and will bare their souls to explain why they oppose the right to bear arms. (Of course, who needs a gun when you’ve got a wicked pointy horn to stab people with?)
Gif of Michelle Obama, wearing a sleeveless pink dress, lifting both arms to flex her muscles.
Bear those bare arms, Michelle!

Gluten vs. Glutton for Punishment

I truly hope that every time I see someone write gluten for punishment when they obviously mean glutton for punishment that it’s a simple spelling error and that they aren’t actually switching those words. Though, I do like the image of bread products getting all wrathful on people who think they’re to blame for all the ills of modern society.

  • The unicorn knew she shouldn’t try to convince the Paleo diet fans that gluten wasn’t really making them sick, since none of them had been diagnosed with an actual allergy, but she was a glutton for punishment and kept arguing with them anyway.

Check back next week for even more grammatically correct unicorns! If you want to catch up on previous lessons, check them out!

Note: This is for personal edification and entertainment only. Don’t be a dick about people who misuse these or any other words, especially on the internet — you have no way of knowing if they have a learning disability, made a simple typo, or just got screwed by autocorrect.

(Unless they’re making these mistakes while ranting about how everyone needs to speak English in ‘merica or are otherwise being an ignorant hypocrite about language usage. Then you have my permission to tell them how very wrong they are on all levels. With gusto. Make the unicorns proud!)

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[E] Hillary

Hillary is a giant nerd and former Mathlete. She once read large swaths of "Why Evolution is True" and a geology book aloud to her infant daughter, in the hopes of a) instilling a love of science in her from a very young age and b) boring her to sleep. After escaping the wilds of Waco, Texas and spending the next decade in NYC, she currently lives in upstate New York, where she misses being able to get decent pizza and Chinese takeout delivered to her house. She lost on Jeopardy.

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