Let's say someone rebukes me for being ignorant of a well-known fact. They say:

"Everyone knows that; it's general knowledge"

when I know that in that context, the normal usage is:

"Everyone knows that; it's common knowledge"

Incorrectly using 'general' when you mean 'common' isn't a malapropism because the words don't sound similar. I'm sure there is a term for this (other than 'error' or 'mistake') but what is it?

  • 2
    Isn't "general knowledge" an idiom, along with "common knowledge"? Why is it wrong?
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Jul 16, 2015 at 21:00
  • @Andrew Leach - Fair enough. I've edited my question. Commented Jul 16, 2015 at 21:02
  • 1
    Same applies: "General knowledge" could easily be used in those circumstances, just as "common knowledge" could be (that is, the fact could be the answer to a General Knowledge quiz question).
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Jul 16, 2015 at 21:04
  • 1
    Okay - it's clear I haven't phrased the question correctly. I'll see if I can come up with a better example. Commented Jul 16, 2015 at 21:27
  • 1
    @chaslyfromUK I thought this comment clarified your question: "General knowledge as an answer to that question would mean "it is knowledge I have gathered outside of my profession/specialist training". Common knowledge means it is commonly (widely) known."
    – Val Kornea
    Commented Jul 16, 2015 at 21:31

5 Answers 5


As suggested, solecism may be an apt term, but barbarism could be even closer, seeing that the example given in the question shows a fault involving a single word. This summary of a section from the Roman grammarian Donatus's Ars Grammatica neatly distinguishes the two:

A barbarism is defined as a fault of a single part of speech, generally a word form...while a solecism is a fault of a part of speech used in connection with other linguistic units.

from Ars Poetriae: Rhetorical and Grammatical Invention at the Margin of Literacy By William Michael Purcell

The patronizing, puritanical air of barbarism is admittedly a long way from the comical nature of malapropism, and Ngram Views shows its (as well as solecism's) use steadily declining to almost nil today. Yet modern dictionaries still maintain its meaning (though always secondary to the sense of "barbaric act") much the way it was described in the 4th C.E. century by Donatus:


3. An error in language use within a single word, such as a mispronunciation.


2a. The use of words, forms, or expressions considered incorrect or unacceptable. b. A specific word, form, or expression so used.

(AHCD, 4th Edition)


You might be searching for catachresis, which is defined by google as "the use of a word in a way that is not correct, for example, the use of mitigate for militate." While mitigate and militate sound similar, this is not characteristic of catachresis. Catachresis is more general, I believe, and applies to confusions of semantically similar words. Such an error could be called a catachresism.

  • That sounds close. What I want is a word that means unintentional catachresis. Maybe solecism is even nearer. Commented Jul 16, 2015 at 22:13

It is true that the expressions have unique set phrase definitions, so each would be preferable for its specific use:

Something known by most people:
it’s common knowledge that no one has yet found a cure for cancer


[MASS NOUN] Knowledge of a broad range of facts about various subjects:
this quiz tests your general knowledge

a round of general knowledge questions

But it would be quite parochial to impose the set phrase interpretation. The adjectival elements of each expression are similar in their meaning and both can be combined with the noun knowledge with insignificant shift in meaning:


adjective (commoner, commonest)

1.0 Occurring, found, or done often; prevalent:
salt and pepper are the two most common seasonings
common misspellings
it’s common for a woman to be depressed after giving birth

1.3 Ordinary; of ordinary qualities; without special rank or position:
the dwellings of common people
a common soldier

1.4 (Of a quality) of a sort or level to be generally expected:
common decency

1.5 Of the most familiar type:
the common or vernacular name

2.0 Shared by, coming from, or done by two or more people, groups, or things:
the two republics' common border problems
common to both communities

2.1 Belonging to or involving the whole of a community or the public at large:
common land
ODO Emphasis added

Common knowledge yields the reasonable meaning:
Ordinary knowledge belonging to the whole community


General knowledge yields the reasonable meaning:
Normal knowledge affecting all people



1.0 Affecting or concerning all or most people or things; widespread:
books of general interest
the general opinion was that prices would fall

1.1 Not specialized or limited in range of subject, application, activity, etc.
brush up on your general knowledge

1.2 (Of a rule, principle, etc.) true for all or most cases.

1.3 Normal or usual:
it is not general practice to confirm or deny such reports
ODO Emphasis added



1 [ATTRIBUTIVE] (Of one or more things) available as another possibility or choice:
the various alternative methods for resolving disputes

Common knowledge is about half again more common than general knowledge in the corpus, but they have been roughly tracking together for about 75 years:

enter image description here


It is certainly appropriate to interpret common knowledge and general knowledge as set phrases, but neither phrase is dominant enough to exclude the simple combination of the words. Therefor, in appropriate contexts general knowledge remains an acceptable alternative for common knowledge.


You could just say that phrase is nonidiomatic -- not an idiom. We had a discussion here once about the difference between the idiomatic "back and forth" and the equally valid but nonidiomatic "forth and back."


Freudian slip: an inadvertent mistake in speech or writing that reveals unconscious intentions.
slip of the tongue: an unintentional error in speaking
misstatement: a statement that contains a mistake

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