10 words and phrases that even teachers get wrong

Do you know your floundering from your foundering? Being discreet or discrete? Mark Roberts reveals common word errors

Ten common word mistakes made by school pupils

Teachers love modelling. 

Like the Kate Mosses of the classroom, we strut our stuff under the visualiser’s paparazzi glare.

But, when you’re on display, things can go wrong – the teacher equivalent of a wardrobe malfunction.

And it can be just as embarrassing. A grammatical error, a misspelled word, a confusing sentence: all copied down by the class.

Common word errors

It’s not just when we’re writing that we can pass on these errors and malapropisms. 

Students also mimic our verbal expressions. And there are certain tricky words and phrases that even teachers get mixed up: 

1. En masse

Meaning “all together; in a group”, this phrase is loaned from French. It’s frequently misspelled “on mass”, evoking images of an old-fashioned playground pile-on. See also “en route” coming out as “on root”.

2. Tenterhooks

When we’re “on tenterhooks”, we’re waiting anxiously for something. The metaphorical phrase originates from hooks on wooden frames, used to dry clothes and textiles in olden times. It often becomes “tender hooks”, perhaps due to an association with feeling vulnerable.

3. Floundering/foundering

If we’re “floundering”, we’re struggling (I floundered in a GCSE French speaking exam due to lack of revision, for example). “Foundering” has a similarly negative meaning but is more drastic: to founder is to fail completely at a task.

4. Utmost 

Meaning “most extreme” or “to the greatest extent”. The phrase “utmost importance” signals something that is high priority. This is regularly translated to the non-existent “upmost”, probably confused around “uppermost”, meaning “elevated”. 

I once saw an English teacher make this mistake. I tried not to be judgemental but it was part of a resource they were flogging online.

5. Dysregulate/deregulate

A term frequently used in relation to emotional or behaviourial issues, “dysregulate” describes a child temporarily unable to control themselves. “Deregulate” denotes a government policy to remove red tape around rules and restrictions, so should only be heard in business studies lessons.

6. Discreet/discrete

When I’m being discreet, I do things quietly, subtly and diplomatically. For example, when a student starts crying in my class, I discreetly ask them if they are OK, rather than bellowing “Why are you crying, boy?”.  Discrete means “distinct” or “kept separately”. For example, “English language and literature are two discrete subjects."

7. Fount/font of all knowledge

To their students, know-it-all teachers might be described as a “fount of all knowledge”. This means a “well-informed and desirable source of information”. Using “font” – perhaps due to confusion with a source of water in a church – is widely viewed as incorrect.

8. Bear/bare with me

The verb “to bear” has many meanings, including “to tolerate”. So when an email says “bear with me”, there’s an implicit apology, letting you know they’ll get back to you soon. 

The verb “to bare” means to undress, so if your headteacher sends an email reading “bare with me”, you need to contact your union.

9. Horde/hoard

“Horde” is a derogatory noun for a large group of people, usually an unruly mob. The noun “hoard”, meanwhile, means a stash of money or valuables. Imagine a horde of teachers stampeding to the newly-stocked stationery cupboard, grabbing their hoards of glue sticks.

10. Principal/principle

The noun “principal” is someone in a position of high authority or regard, so has become a popular job title for headteachers who no longer teach. “Principle” means “a natural, moral or legal rule”. A clunky mnemonic to help remember the difference is “The principal is your pal”. That is unless they’ve just stuck you on capability proceedings.

 

Which words and phrases catch out you and your colleagues? It would be nice to list a full complement of these easily confused words. Or should that be full compliment?

Mark Roberts is an assistant headteacher in the South West of England

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