Can You Correctly Spell All of These Common Phrases?



By: Torrance Grey

6 Min Quiz

Image: shutterstock

About This Quiz

We've all known someone who's a wonderfully colorful storyteller in speech -- but whose writing is littered with misspellings! Now, that's nothing to sneer at. It's well-known that spelling is no indicator of intelligence. Even so, you might be concerned about expressing yourself well on paper (or digitally) as well as in conversation. So, in that case, you'll probably want to know that you're not just using key phrases correctly, but spelling them right, too.

We're here to help. We've created a quiz on popular English phrases and idioms. Some are quite short, like an adverb-adjective combination. Others are longer, for example, a whole saying you might find in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. Many of these phrases, you'll find, come from the Bible. Fortunately, we quote them in modern language, not the King James Version. A runner-up, in terms of a source, is Shakespeare. The Bard contributed many common phrases to the English language. This includes "into thin air," which is too simply spelled to have been included in our quiz. Finally, in one instance, we've borrowed from the classic Humphrey Bogart movie "Casablanca."

So here's looking at you, kid -- and here's hoping that your spelling is up to snuff!

Something very frightening is a scene from your "worst _______."

It's likely you knew this one, "nightmare" being a common word. It's also been popularized by movies, like the "Nightmare on Elm Street" series.


To make a situation worse is to "add insult to _____."

Here's an example of this phrase in action. "He forgot our date, and to add insult to injury, went to the county fair with friends that same evening!"


If you're sick, you feel "under the ____."

Look out! The incorrect option choices contain two legitimate words in their own right -- just not the correct one to complete the phrase. A "wether" is a sheep that leads a flock, while "whether" is a word that distinguishes between two choices.


According to a popular song, "The cat's in the _____ and the silver spoon ..."

You've almost certainly heard this one. Its upbeat melody belies a terribly depressing tale of a man whose workaholic tendencies cause him to miss out on his son's youth. Then his son, when Dad is finally retired, makes the same kind of excuses for not visiting. Fun!


"Just because a cat has her kittens in the oven don't make 'em ______."

This odd expression comes to us from rural New England. Side note: We don't believe a cat would ever climb into an oven to give birth. Really, there had to be a better way to make this point.


To flatter someone is to "_______ them up."

Improbably, this phrase comes from an East Indian tradition of throwing butter at statues of gods to gain favors. Fortunately, with humans in the present day, the buttering is no longer literal.


A "_____ in sheep's clothing" is someone who appears innocent, but is not.

The expression "a wolf in sheep's clothing" is one of a good many that come from the Bible. You'll see a few others in this quiz.


In New England, a clever person might be called "______ smart!"

Of course, the right answer is "wicked." Maybe "Wiccan smart" is knowing where to get the best deals on Tom's of Maine products.


According to the classic movie "Casablanca," the problems of three people "don't _____ to a hill of beans."

This phrase is one of Rick's (Humphrey Bogart's) famous lines in "Casablanca": "I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the troubles of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world."


Your first, quick response to a situation is called "a knee-jerk _______."

If someone uses this phrase about you, it's not complimentary. Often it means that a person is acting on poorly thought-out prejudices or biases.


Two people who are quite similar are "cut from the same ______."

Fun fact: A similar phrase, commonly spelled as "made out of whole cloth" is actually misspelled. It means "something completely fabricated," and should be "made out of hole cloth." This is because tailors saved the holes they cut out of other garments (e.g. armholes) and stitched them together to make cheap items of clothing.


A jealous person is under the sway of the "green-eyed _______."

This phrase is credited to Shakespeare, who used it in "Othello." This play also gave us the memorable, and racy, "beast with two backs."


If you're committed, you might say "In for the ______, in for the ______."

This phrase comes to us from British English. Americans spend dollars, not pounds -- but they still use this expression.


Someone who accomplishes three feats has scored "a ____ trick."

This expression comes to us from hockey, where it's three of the same accomplishments: that is, three goals by the same player in one game. In life, a "hat trick" is often three different things: "He showed up on time, sober, and with shoes on. For Uncle Louie, that's like a hat trick."


If you have to do something unpleasant, it's time to "bite the _______."

Before anesthesia, soldiers injured in battle would bite bullets during surgery to cope with the pain. Nowadays, fortunately, the practice is limited to magicians with "bullet-catching" acts.


Fill in the phrase "One rotten _____ spoils the whole _____."

Farmers will tell you that this expression is true. An apple with mold spores on it, added to a bunch of fresh ones, will quickly spread mold to the rest.


If you're committed to something, you've put your "______ to the wheel."

This phrase expresses grit and determination. On the other hand, if you're clever, you could get a stream of water to turn the wheel, or wind ... no need to tax yourself unnecessarily!


In the South, if you have an unpredictable personality, they might say, "Boy (girl), you are a _______."

If you're a "caution," people have to beware around you. They never know what you're going to do next!


A person who is mistaken is "______ up the wrong tree."

This expression has nothing to do with tree bark. Rather, it comes from a hunting hound that mistakenly believes a prey animal is up a certain tree, when it is in another.


Finish the phrase: "The ______ wheel gets the grease."

Not all cultures agree with this English-language proverb in favor of drawing attention to oneself. In Japan, they suggest the opposite: "The nail that sticks up gets pounded down."


Highly authoritative information comes "______ from the horse's mouth."

This expression might have come from the fact that the most reliable way to assess a horse's age was to examine its mouth. This was a bit like reading the odometer on a car you might want to buy. If you'd examined the horse's mouth, you knew what you were talking about.


You might ask, of a person set in their ways, "Can a ________ change its spots?"

This expression comes from the book of Jeremiah in the Bible. The verse concludes, "Then may you also do good, that are accustomed to do evil."


Spy work is referred to as "_____-and-______" stuff.

The origin of this phrase isn't hard to guess. The romantic image of a spy is someone hidden behind a swirling cloak -- maybe with a dagger in its folds, ready for use.


Something done quickly, in one action, is done in "one ____ _____."

This expression is from "Macbeth." Assassins have killed Macduff's entire family in "one fell swoop," or evil action -- not unlike the deadly swipe of a lion's paw.


On the internet, something very cute would be called "______ adorbs."

"Totes adorbs" is basic slang. It is a shortening of "totally adorable."


A vexing problem in an otherwise good situation is "a fly in the _______."

We get this expression from the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible. The verse says, paraphrased, that a dead fly in an apothecary's ointment causes a stink, just like foolishness does in a normally wise man.


Something tempting but off-limits is "_______ fruit."

Of course, this expression comes from the story of Eden. There, the Tree of Knowledge was right in the middle of the garden, but off-limits to Adam and Eve.


To treat something lightly is to give it "short _____."

"Shrift" used to mean "confession (at church)." Because Shakespeare used the term "short shrift" in a scene where a character is being urged to hurry through confession and get on to other things, the expression "short shrift" meant to be quick and hasty in any kind of duty.


If you're waiting anxiously for something, you're waiting with "______ breath."

Don't be fooled by the fact that "baited" is also a real word (as in, "a baited hook.") "Bated" comes from "abated": it means you are holding your breath.


A great-looking man might be called "a regular _____."

"Adonis" is a name from Greek mythology. Although a mortal, he was so attractive that Aphrodite fell in love with him.


On the other hand, if a man is exceptionally evil, he might be "the devil ______."

"Incarnate" means "in the flesh." The root "-carn" is related to words like "carne," Spanish for "meat," and "carnival," where pleasures of the flesh are celebrated.


Bear in mind, jewelry lovers, that "all that _______ is not gold."

This is a phrase going back, perhaps, as far as Chaucer. So some people might prefer the archaic "glisters," while most others use the modern "glitters."


If an outcome is understood in advance, it is a "_______ _______."

You'll hear this one used when something is all but certain. For example, the outcome of lopsided matchups in sports.


At a wedding, you might hear, "What God has joined together, let no man put _______."

We don't blame you if you had to think about this one! "Asunder" is an old-fashioned word, meaning "broken apart." Likewise, it'd be a traditional couple that chose this benediction for their ceremony.


If someone is a tough negotiator, he or she is "playing _______."

"Playing softball" and "playing hardball" are sports metaphors. You might also hear someone refer to a "softball question" in an interview.


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