Word War: Barking Up the Wrong Tree vs Barking At the Wrong Tree

When English is not your first language, idiomatic expressions can be challenging: for example, when someone has the wrong idea about you, are they barking up or at the wrong tree? Such expressions can be confusing at times, especially ones that are not normally used in daily conversations. Not only that they can confuse the speakers, they can also distort the message and confuse the listeners. So what really is the appropriate expression: barking up the wrong tree or barking at the wrong tree? What is the difference between them?

The established idiomatic expression is “to be barking up the wrong tree.” It means “to have a wrong idea, or do something in a way that will not give you the information or result you want; to make the wrong choice; to ask the wrong person; to follow the wrong course.” The phrase was first used in early 1800s America, when hunting with packs of dogs was very popular. The term was literal at first, when wily prey animals, such as raccoons, would trick dogs into believing they were up a certain tree when in fact they had escaped. Thus, dogs barking at the base of an empty tree were said to be “barking up the wrong tree.” Later on, the phrase was used figuratively to suggest that a person has the wrong idea about something, thus, following the wrong course of action.

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What about “barking at the wrong tree,” what does it mean? In certain contexts, this might mean something and would be correct. At the same time, there is no such idiomatic expression. So where did expression come from? This may have been a misheard version of the actual idiomatic expression since in spoken English, up and at may sound similar depending on the rate of speech and accent of the speaker, as well as the listeners’ familiarity of the message. So when people have the wrong idea about something, we say that they are “barking up the wrong tree,” while “barking at the wrong tree” may suggest that they are barking directly at a tree they shouldn’t be barking at.

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