Old and new forms

The Oxford English Corpus lets us examine the process of reanalysis in action, by comparing the frequency of the old or established form of a phrase with the frequency of its new form. Here are some examples of phrases that have been changed. The figures show what percentage of the total number of examples each form represents:

Accepted form%Reanalysed (i.e. changed) form%
moot point97%mute point3%
sleight of hand85%slight of hand15%
toe the line84%tow the line16%
fazed by71%phased by29%
home in on65%hone in on35%
a shoo-in65%a shoe-in35%
bated breath60%baited breath40%
free rein54%free reign46%
chaise longue54%chaise lounge46%
buck naked53%butt naked47%
vocal cords51%vocal chords49%
just deserts42%just desserts58%
fount of knowledge/wisdom41%font of knowledge/wisdom59%


You can see that, with some phrases, the standard spellings are still much more common, e.g. moot point and sleight of hand. But with others the newer form is becoming more common than the original, for example strait-laced versus straight-laced. Indeed, straight-laced is now accepted as a valid alternative spelling in the Oxford Dictionary of English.

At the moment, this is the only example from the ‘changed’ list that's considered to be correct, and you should stick to the currently accepted forms as found in the dictionary. In the meantime, we'll keep track of the ongoing changes through the Corpus — will strait-laced disappear from the language completely? Perhaps tow the line one day will become an acceptable alternative to toe the line!

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