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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 point 97% mute point 3%
sleight of hand 85% slight of hand 15%
toe the line 84% tow the line 16%
fazed by 71% phased by 29%
home in on 65% hone in on 35%
a shoo-in 65% a shoe-in 35%
bated breath 60% baited breath 40%
free rein 54% free reign 46%
chaise longue 54% chaise lounge 46%
buck naked 53% butt naked 47%
vocal cords 51% vocal chords 49%
just deserts 42% just desserts 58%
fount of knowledge/wisdom 41% font of knowledge/wisdom 59%
strait-laced 34% straight-laced 66%

 

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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Grammar and usage