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Syntax Training | Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

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January 21, 2011


Charles Crawford

You are right about the need to check expressions we think are correct. I once caught a colleague saying that something had "passed mustard." I gently explained that he meant "passed muster." His problem stemmed from not knowing the meaning of "muster" - a formal military inspection. I had fun with that one.

Get a Book Published

I like this explanation -- I frequently find myself using expressions without being 100% sure if I'm using them correctly. I recently mixed up "X situation doesn't pass muster" with "X situation doesn't pass mustard." Fortunately, a kindly reader corrected me so I didn't end up with too much egg on my face - or mustard, either!

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Thanks, Charles, for your helpful reminder on "passed muster."


Cookie Biggs

The hilarity with which I greet tales of such word mix-ups is equaled by my crawling discomfort over the memories of my own mistakes. My Achilles knees (that was intentional) are "etymology" and "entomology." And I once wrote a news feature that slipped past my editor with the word "conspirationally" in it. A clear-eyed friend caught that one, to my everlasting embarrassment.

Just underscores the need for a friendly editor or proofreader.

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Hi, Cookie. Thanks for your confession. I remember many years ago when an editor caught me before I "flushed out" a subject--rather than fleshing it out. Sigh.


Dan Darnell

A colleague recently used the expression "it didn't cut the mustard" and I thought surely this was a version of misstating "couldn't pass muster". Nope. Turns out "cut the mustard" is a legitimate expression, albeit a bizarre one.


Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Hi, Dan. Very interesting! I have heard "Cut the mustard," probably in old movies. I would not use the expression in business writing.

Thanks for sharing.



Thanks for this -- just the info I needed. As a medievalist, I'm familiar with the usage of "tell" to mean count or tally, but part of me still wanted to write "all tolled."

Idiomatic expressions that we hear more than we see written can get tricky. Yet I'm still amazed at the degree to which "flaunt" has come to be interchangeable with (its opposite) "flaut", or that so many published authors and professional speakers use "spitting image" when it should be "spit and image."

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Hi, Frank. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

Given your mention of "spit and image," I decided to look further. "Garner's Modern American Usage" goes into detail about the phrase. Garner says that "spitting image" is 50 times more common in print than "spit and image." For that reason, "spitting image" has become standard.

So don't be amazed, Frank! "Spitting image" is now correct.


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