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You Can’t Coin What’s Already Coined

Sometimes you hear statements like this: They threw him under the bus, to coin a phrase or To coin a phrase, he’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Those who say such things do not understand coin a phrase. You cannot coin a phrase that other people have already used. When you use phrases that have been used before, you are borrowing or repeating a phrase. To coin a phrase is to make one up. For example: To coin a phrase, he’s not the brightest bauble in the brooch. (OK, it’s not great, but at least it’s original.)

We were surprised to find that online dictionaries give the benefit of the doubt to those who misuse coin a phrase. “Said when introducing a new expression or a variation on a familiar one,” says the online Oxford Dictionary. So far, so good. But then Oxford adds, “or ironically to show one’s awareness that one is using a hackneyed expression.” To traditionalists, that part of the sentence is preposterous.

Incredibly, other reputable online dictionaries no longer even acknowledge the original meaning of coin a phrase. The online dictionary produced by Collins, a company that has been around for two centuries, gives only this definition: “said ironically after one uses a cliché.”

The next time you hear someone say coin a phrase, see if you detect an ironic tone. In our experience, very few people use this expression “ironically.” They say it cluelessly.

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The phrase you guys has been around a long time, but it has gained acceptance as the culture becomes more and more informal. Long ago it meant you men, but then girls and women started calling one another “you guys.” At that point, guy took on the meaning it has today: a casual synonym for person.

Many people prefer not to be called a “guy”—especially by overfamiliar strangers. But the specific circumstances should be considered. I’ll be right with you guys would not be out of place down at the neighborhood bar and grill, but it seems inappropriate in expensive restaurants or at formal occasions.

Meanwhile, back at the bar and grill, your waitperson says, “I’ll be right back to take your guys’s order.” Whoa—did you say your guys’s?

It can’t be your. In the phrase you guys, the word you acts as an adjective (like two in the phrase two guys). Adjectives do not change form when the nouns they modify become possessive.

Nor can it be guys’s. Plural nouns ending in the letter s add only an apostrophe to the possessive. We write one guy’s order or two guys’ order, but never two guys’s order. It can only be guys’.

Therefore the correct sentence, if you must say it, is I’ll be right back to take you guys’ order.

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