Background: My spouse is German, and tends to misuse some words in English, and also tends to get some idioms a bit garbled. For example, to my spouse, "school" is synonymous with "grade school," and does not include college (but the distortion of this English vocabulary item isn't 100% consistent). So it's hard to know what is meant by, for example, "S. (21yo son) is doing a lot better with understanding underlying concepts [in science] than he was doing when he was in school." This is confusing because S. graduated college in May. Is the improvement since May? Or since graduating high school four years ago? Hard to know! My spouse gets idioms garbled too, but I can't think of an example right now.

Problem: There was a recent question on ELU that reminded me of my spouse's malapropisms, but I hesitated to use this word in a comment to the OP, since it might feel offensive. Is there a softer, but similar, word or phrase I could use instead of saying (after some going around and around with the OPE), "Leave out to dry, used in place of hang out to dry, sounds like a malapropism, pure and simple." (I'd like some help expressing this, whether or not you agree with me about that particular idiom.)

For reference, here's a definition of malapropism, from dictionary.com:

1. an act or habit of misusing words ridiculously, especially by the confusion of words that are similar in sound.

2. an instance of this, as in, “Lead the way and we'll precede.”

closed as primarily opinion-based by user66974, Drew, Glorfindel, vickyace, kiamlaluno Mar 29 '17 at 10:39

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    We may need to know why you consider malapropism to be offensive. (I don't think "leave out to dry" instead of "hang out to dry" is necessarily a malapropism in the same way that (2) definitely is -- part of the effect of a real malapropism is that the word actually used directly conflicts with the intention.) Also: your spouse may be confused between the German system of schooling and your indigenous system (US?). Certainly I (in the UK) have never understood how US "schools" work. – Andrew Leach Mar 27 '17 at 17:57
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    I think saying somthing like "That's not the way that word is normally understood here", or "i'm afraid people would misunderstand what you meant by that in xyz"(your community) That sort of explanation might be better than looking for a formal term... unless someone can think of a friendly, informal way (which is what you're looking for of course! ; ) ) – Tom22 Mar 27 '17 at 18:00
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    I am not sure that malapropism is an offensive term. – user66974 Mar 27 '17 at 18:26
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    @Tom22 Correcting someone's grammar often comes across as judgemental and pedantic irrespective of the phrasing. – Arun Mar 27 '17 at 19:26
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    Maybe it is the truth and being blunt about it that is offensive, not the words themselves. You probably just want replacements for ''mistake' and 'error' and 'wrong', want to euphemize. 'inappropriate', 'just not the way it is said', 'misleading', 'false friend', 'semantic slippage' are in the direction of removing blame from the user. – Mitch Mar 27 '17 at 19:56

Say the phrasing is not idiomatic.

That says you are not judging the words as wrong, but the understanding will be confused because English is particularly idiomatic.

After all, there's no accounting for the idiom in any language. In their English, Spanish speakers say I have two years here, I have 25 years old, and I have two meters tall. English uses I am, and the easiest explanation is "It's idiomatic:"

Peculiar to or characteristic of a given language. - American Heritage Dictionary, 5th Ed.

  • I like this a lot and unless a miracle occurs, will be accepting this. – aparente001 Mar 27 '17 at 21:54
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    Ta da! I explained to the OP that the proposed phrase wasn't "idiomatically equivalent," and apparently no offense was taken. Success. – aparente001 Mar 29 '17 at 1:37

Jeez, when you are making a reference to a comic-relief character in a comedy of manners first produced onstage in 1775, I think you have sort of bottomed-out when it comes to "soft" and "inoffensive".

Perhaps you could have fun with the idea. "Not the pineapple of accuracy." "My affluence over your spoken English is slight." "Your physiognomy is not grammatical!"

For my own ESL wife, I composed aphorisms to straighten distinctions she reversed. Like she would confuse "door" and "window", so I taught her "the WIND comes in the WINDOW; the DOg comes in the DOor."

They haven't helped at all but it's only been 28 years, so I'm still hopeful.


If you want to be gentle you can say that their English is a little unorthodox. Or charming. We native speakers will know what you mean. I once had a French roommate who came home one day and complained that "they really fed me up at school today", which I found quite charming.

If you want to be really nice, you can complement them for their creative use of English.


The phrases are ambiguous:

open to or having several possible meanings or interpretations; equivocal (dictionary.com)

Communicating with terms that can be ambiguous based on context lead to vague perception and can make conversations difficult to follow.

The terms may not be ambiguous from your context, nor are they from your spouse's context, but from the union of contexts.

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    Are you sure that ambiguous doesn't carry any potentially offensive connotation? – user66974 Mar 27 '17 at 18:47
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    Ambiguous should not carry any offensiveness - it usually is assumed unintentional. – user105360 Mar 27 '17 at 18:50

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