Malapropism: A Sneaky Soundalike in Writing—Humor or Error

by | Writing | 4 comments

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Malapropism is using a word that sounds similar to the right word the writer intended to use. The word comes from the French expression mal a propos, which means inappropriate.

Malapropism can be unintentional or intentional.

To add humor to a story, writers sometimes create characters who repeatedly use malapropisms. The best way to avoid accidental malapropisms is to consult your word processor’s thesaurus or dictionary often.

Below I list common unplanned malapropisms, and then for fun, I give some that could add humor to a character’s dialogue or personality.

Likely Unintentional Malapropisms

He clenched the deal. (clinched)

“Choose Agent Moss for the job. His photogenic memory will come in handy. (photographic)

Alice got the votes because of her great statue. (stature)

The pyramids have been unparalyzed in world history. (unparalleled)

“Supposively, I’m the next up for promotion.” (supposedly)

“Supposably, I have Lyme disease.” (supposedly)

For all intensive purposes, he was a blue-collar worker. (intents and)

She waved. “Au reservoir.” (au revoir)

I was saddened that so many children were illiteral. (illiterate)

“If you want to keep this job, you must be punctuate. (punctual)

Her ailment weekend her strength. (weakened)

Fortuitously, she brought in the garments on the clothesline before it rained. (fortunately)

He traveled the torturous road with its hairpin curves. (tortuous)

The job was sedimentary. (sedentary)

“Get things set up, and then we’ll precede with a practice run.” (proceed)

Once we add installation, heat won’t seep out. (insulation)

The clues didn’t jive with the crime. (jibe)

“Stop portending you’re someone you’re not.” (pretending)


Malapropisms Favorable to Adding Humor

image by stevepb

The mayor announced the flooding was too dangerous and called residents to evaporate the area. (evacuate)

“That man is under the affluence of alcohol.” (influence)

“I’m fine. I don’t need a blood transmission. (transfusion)

“We’ve got to eradicate weapons of mass production for people today and our predecessors. (destruction) (progeny)

“Watch out for that wolf in cheap clothing.” (sheep’s)

“The newspaper said he broke the law of monotony and had two families.” (monogamy)

“Quick. Bring the fire distinquisher. (extinguisher)

“No one is going to use me as an escape goat.” (scapegoat)

The drill sergeant was so tough that dysentery rose in the barracks. (dissension)

“I’m going to fatten you up. You look emancipated. (emaciated)

“Let’s celebrate the end of the physical year.” (fiscal)

She grasped the pendulum hanging from her neck. (pendant)

“Man, goldenrod and ragweed kill the sciences.” (sinuses)

Write sentences in the positive form. Avoid contraptions like won’t and can’t. (contractions)

“I’m telling you, an intruder is a pigment of your imagination. (figment)

“As they say, ‘a rolling stone gathers no moths.’” (moss)

“Don’t pay the ransom. The thugs will just hold someone else’s daughter hostile.” (hostage)

“Well, my son outweighs yours as a suppository of knowledge.” (depository)

The tantrum bicycle juddered and wobbled. (tandem)

Malapropisms in writing can embarrass authors or add humor to a character. Click to tweet.

What are malapropisms you’ve read or heard?

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  1. Tanya Hanson

    A laugh out loud post, Zoe! Great stuff. It’s not exactly a malapropism but I’ve never forgotten a local newspaper columnist who wrote “grizzly”
    for grisly murder scene. Still chuckling twenty years later.

    • Zoe M. McCarthy

      Oh, Tanya, I can see me writing grizzly instead of grisly! Yikes!

    • Zoe M. McCarthy

      Peggy, I know exactly what you meant. I’m greatful for mine.

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