Nothing out of the (un)usual

One of my facebook friends posted a link to this video, “The The Impotence of Proofreading.” What a great performance!

It reminded me of something I meant to post about a while ago and never did. I was re-reading one of my stories before submitting it, and I found this sentence:

“Hug her boys, pretend nothing out of the unusual has happened?”

“Nothing out of the unusual.” Hm, what’s wrong with this phrase?

The story had been read countless times. It underwent rigorous revisions and proofreading when it was part of my MFA thesis almost two years ago. I had also re-read it a few times over the past few months, and hadn’t caught that error.

What interests me about this kind of error, is the way the brain seems to be tricked into thinking the sentence is correct. When I read that sentence and miss the error, it’s as if my brain has OK’d the concept, and in the process, hasn’t actually read the words that are there on the page. If something “is unusual,” then it “is out of the usual.” It’s as if my mind is conflating those two ideas into one. The problem is that “nothing out of the usual” has a very, very different meaning from “nothing out of the unusual.”

What’s going on in cases like this? Is it merely a proofreading error? Is it a larger, conceptual mishap? Or is it the product of something even larger, a misuse of words at the societal level? I know there are other examples similar to this misuse that I hear all the time, but then, there seems to be a difference between someone not knowing the correct usage of a word, and someone misusing a word despite knowing the correct usage, due to some kind of temporary brain coma.

I’m trying to think of examples of these other phrases, and I just can’t right now. They’re on the tip of the tongue of my brain…


One response to “Nothing out of the (un)usual

  1. A blog called Language Log discusses the “eggcorn,” or word or phrase that has been misheard and misrepresented commonly (as eggcorn for acorn). Not quite what happened with your “out of the unusual,” but certainly something to be aware of as a writer…

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