It’s come to worse

Do you use the phrase if worse comes to worst? What about if worst comes to worst?

If you use one and see someone else use the other, do you think it’s a mistake?

Both of those versions of the phrase are accepted in standard usage, though they mean slightly different things. In a 2011 New York Times column, linguist Ben Zimmer traces “if worst comes to worst” to 1596. When the idiom originated, he notes, it meant “the worst thing in theory turning into the worst thing in actuality.”

Now, we tend to use the phrase to mean “if the worst thing happens,” a shift that’s more logically in line with “if worse comes to worst.” And today that version of the phrase is the most popular one in published work.

A screenshot of a message from Stylebot on Slack that reads: "The idiom "if worse comes to worst" originated as "if worst comes to worst," and both can be used. But "worse comes to worst" is more common in modern usage: "If worse comes to worst, we can drive instead of fly."

OK, but if worse comes to worst, can you use “if worse comes to worse”? Opinions vary on this one, and it is the least common in published work, so we recommend sticking with the two most popular forms.

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