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Malapropisms are when a similar-sounding word is mistakenly used in the place of the correct word, often resulting in an amusing effect.

According to Britannica, the term originates from Richard Sheridan’s play The Rivals in which one of the characters, Mrs Malaprop, (taken from the French word ‘malapropos’ meaning ‘inappropriate’) continually uses the incorrect word in her sentences. She talks about the ‘geometry of contagious countries’ (the geography of contiguous countries), hoped her daughter would ‘reprehend’ (comprehend) the true meaning of her words and regretted that her ‘affluence’ (influence) over her niece was minimal.

The media often reports on malapropisms. Barich (2023) lists the following examples:

  • Tony Abbot: No-one no matter how smart, however well-educated, however experienced…is the suppository  [repository] of all wisdom.
  • Brett in Cath and Kim: I want to be effluent [affluent] and practise serial monotony [monogamy].
  • Jack Dyer: His hands reached up like giant testicles [tentacles].

Many malapropisms are associated with idioms, proverbs and common expressions:

  • It could be like opening a panda’s [Pandora’s] box.
  • Went down the road hammer and thong [tong].
  • Falling by the waste [way] side.
  • For all intensive [intents and] purposes.
  • It all goes [augers] well.

Malapropisms can be a useful device as an activity for vocabulary development.

Step 1: Introduce

  • Choose some age-appropriate malapropisms.
  • Help students determine the word that has been used incorrectly and its meaning. It can also be useful to determine the part of speech of that word.
  • Provide the students with the correct/more appropriate similar-sounding word and discuss the meaning of this word and if relevant the part of speech of that word.

Step 2: Model

  • On the board, write an idiom, proverb, common expression or a sentence using a word students are currently learning. Discuss the meaning of the sentence.
  • Choose one word that is a key word in the sentence.
  • With the class, brainstorm similar sounding words and/or use a dictionary to find other words which begin with similar letters.
  • Swap the two words to create a malapropism. Discuss the new meaning of the sentence.

Step 3: Scaffold

  • Ask the class to suggest other proverbs, idioms, common expressions or a sentence containing a focus vocabulary word (depending on which of these you chose in the step above).
  • Choose one of these sentences to write on the board and discuss the meaning of the sentence.
  • Together identify the word(s) that could be changed.
  • Working in groups, students choose one of these words and brainstorm a substitute word using the strategies outlined in Step 2.
  • Each group shares their brainstormed words, then reads out their malapropism and discuss the altered meaning of the sentence.

Step 4: Apply independently

  • Students choose their own sentence. This should be similar to the ones used in the steps above. If the model was a proverb, then the student would choose a proverb.
  • They change one word to create a malapropism.
  • The new sentence is neatly written (or typed) on a piece of paper.
  • Collect and then redistribute the malapropisms.
  • Students determine the word used incorrectly on the malapropism they received, write the meaning of the incorrect and correct words and if relevant the part of speech of each word.


Barich, A. (2023, October 1). Almost there, Sunday Times Magazine, p.24

Britannica (2023).