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A Word, Please:

Wreaking havoc on misuse

October 02, 2009|By June Casagrande

A Sept. 14, an AOL News article about food-borne pathogens reported that, “Oysters, steak tartare and sushi are just a few of the foods that often get a bad wrap.”

AOL News should be more concerned about the bad rap they themselves risk when they let mistakes like “bad wrap” get into print. says that a “rap” is, among other things, a criminal charge or blame. Hence the expressions “murder rap” or “to beat the rap.” And though the latter would be cause for celebration, you’d probably never throw a “rap party.”


You’d leave that to the folks who film TV shows and movies and who, when they’re done, throw “wrap parties,” echoing those little words every production assistant loves to hear: “It’s a wrap.”

“Bad rap” is one of many expressions that seem to get spoken a lot more than they get written. They’re so familiar, so cemented in our minds, that we feel we know them, even though we may not.

So if we’ve spent a lifetime hearing “all intensive purposes” when people said “all intents and purposes,” it’s natural that we wouldn’t question whether we have it right. It’s how embarrassing mistakes are born.

Here are some of the most commonly misheard expressions. Speak them with confidence, but write them with caution.

You may while away the hours, but unless you’re a conniving coyote, you don’t “wile” them away. That’s because, as a verb, “while” means “to spend time idly or pleasantly.”

Idleness gets a bad rap from folks who say that the devil finds work for idle hands. Downtime, they say, can be used to wreak havoc. “Wreak” means to inflict, bring about or cause. So never write “to reek havoc,” which would be nonsense. That’s the equivalent of staying “to stink trouble.”

The letter W should be left out; however, when you’re trying hard to think of something, it could cause you to write “I’m wracking my brains” instead of the correct “I’m racking my brains.”

The word “rack” has roots in a word meaning “to torture by stretching,” while “wrack” means to destroy or wreck completely.

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