Tag Archives: editing

Usage Misdemeanours: Peak, Peek, and Pique

Virtually every manuscript that’s crossed my desk for editing in the past year or so has contained errors in the use of the homophones peak, peek, and pique. Personally, I’ve never had any difficulty keeping these three little words straight, but given the number of errors I see it’s obvious they’re a source of confusion to writers everywhere. I’ve seen “peak my curiosity” and “a sneak peak” among other misuses. Here’s a quick peek (if you’ll pardon the expression) at the differences between these words and tips for keeping them straight.

Peak is a word dating back to the 1500s, and it has several meanings as a noun. It can be the pointed top of a mountain or any mountain with a pointed top. Mountains aside, a peak is something that protrudes and reaches a point.  When you whip egg whites vigorously, they end up having stiff peaks (and you’re then ready to make a meringue).  A peak is also a high point in a different sense; you can reach a peak of activity or achievement. For example, “Horace reached his peak as a magician.” As well, a peak is the point on a graph that reflects the highest point in terms of a physical quantity. The brim of a hat (particularly in Britain) or the narrow part of a ship’s hold are also definitions of the word peak.

As a verb, peak means to reach an apex, and often a certain time for this occurrence is specified. You could say that “Horace peaked as a magician at age thirty.” Peak is also an archaic verb from about 1600 meaning to become sickly. Derived from it are the adjectives peaked (always pronounced pea-ked) and peaky, which is more commonly used in Britain. Both words emerged in the early 1800s and not surprisingly mean pallid or gaunt from illness. Peak used as an adjective is fairly recent, dating to about 1900. Again, it’s related to attaining a maximum. “Horace reached his peak level as a magician.”

Peek as a verb means to glance quickly or slyly. For example, “Alice peeked through the window at her devastatingly handsome neighbour.” It can also mean to protrude very slightly so as to be barely visible, as in, “His fingertips peeked through the ends of his threadbare gloves.” As a verb, it’s very old, dating back to the 14th century. It wasn’t used as a noun (meaning a quick or furtive look) until the middle of the 19th century.

The important thing to remember about peek is that it’s always associated with looking, whereas peak is primarily associated with  high points. With this in mind, I created this illustration to help you distinguish the two. The two es  in peek resemble a pair of eyes, while the a in peak, when capitalized, resembles a mountain.

Peek vs. peak

Finally, there’s pique. The word derives from the French verb piquer, which means to prick or irritate. The noun form of the word emerged first around 1600 and means irritation or resentment at suffering a slight or blow to your pride. A person typically has “a fit of pique,” which isn’t much fun for those witnessing it. But pique is most commonly used as a verb meaning to arouse interest or curiosity, and it’s been used as such since the late 17th century. For example, “You piqued my curiosity when you started whispering.” To be piqued means you’re feeling irritable. To pique yourself means that you pride yourself, but this is an archaic usage that’s unfamiliar to most of us. Pique is also used a both a noun and a verb with reference to piquet, a card game for two, but most of the confusion writers experience isn’t related to this usage. To avoid confusing pique with the other homophones, remember that it’s the only one with an i in it, which stands for irritation.

I hope I’ve clarified the meanings of peak, peek, and pique for you and provided useful tips for keeping them straight. Now when you need to choose the right homophone in your writing, you’ll no longer experience confusion or succumb to fits of pique!

No First Drafts, No Fancy Formatting: Tips for Keeping Editing Costs Down

Last month, I gave a workshop aimed at self-publishing authors about hiring editors, and naturally we covered pricing. I told the workshop attendees that many editors charge by the hour. In estimating costs, they’ll first determine how many pages per hour they can edit by reviewing a sample of the author’s manuscript. (By “page,” I mean a standard double-spaced 250-word page.) Seven to eight pages per hour is quite brisk, whereas two to three is deathly slow. I went on to describe what makes an editor’s pages-per-hour rate plummet, thereby causing editing costs to rise.

What factors can add to editing costs? An obvious one is the quality of the writing. I’ll be honest–truly awful writing is mind-twistingly difficult to edit and time-consuming. The reasons for awful writing vary, of course. Sometimes the author’s first language is not English, which results in incorrect spelling, cumbersome syntax, and a sometimes amusing mangling of English idioms. If ESL isn’t the issue, the writer may have been daydreaming through English class, never learning the rules or thinking they’d be needed. Whatever the cause of awful writing, an experienced editor often has a knack for figuring out what these writers are trying to say and can edit their work. In extreme cases, bad writers need to go back to school to learn the basics of expressing themselves before they can even be edited.

One thing I told my workshop attendees was to always submit the best work they’re capable of, as this will save them money. Submitting your best possible work means slaving away at multiple drafts to work out structural issues before getting any line editing done. (By the way, if you’re a writer and don’t think you need to work hard, I urge you to reconsider your chosen path.) Under the category of disheartening are those clients who submit their first drafts for line editing. No first draft is ever ready for such late-stage editing. It’s a different matter if the editor is providing a manuscript evaluation, as direction for a rewrite can be based on the initial draft. Remember that no matter who writes them, first drafts are invariably lousy. But like some sort of unattractive foundation garment, they need to exist before anything else can be layered on top. Once they’ve served their purpose, though, hide them away at the back of the drawer!

Aside from submitting your most polished prose, how else can you cut costs? For one thing, keep your formatting standard. Use a standard font such as 12-point Times New Roman or Courier. As well, double space your text and indent your paragraphs. Take out any extra line spaces between your paragraphs. Keep the left margin justified and set margins all around to one inch. Start new chapters on new pages. Keep spacing between headings and body text consistent throughout the text. If you don’t do these things, your editor generally will, and it does take extra time.

Avoid the temptation to design your book in Word; a professional designer will do this after the editing phase is finished. Some authors love to play with multiple fonts in Word, resulting in a dog’s breakfast of bizarrely incompatible text styles. As well, it’s not unusual to find authors using multiple formatting tools–colour, bold, underlining, and all caps–to emphasize particular words. (Italics are all that’s needed to emphasize words, and even those need to be used judiciously.) Don’t festoon your manuscript with this sort of garish window dressing–it only distracts the editor from the content of your writing. As well, don’t do quirky things with your margins. Once, and for no good reason that I could determine, a client insisted on starting certain paragraphs about three-quarters of the way across the page, near the right margin, and I couldn’t dissuade her. Leaving such wildly unconventional stuff in your manuscript will only make it look amateurish, and your editor will need to spend a great deal of time undoing it. Simplicity of presentation is what impresses editors the most, and what makes your work appear professional.

The bottom line is this: you’ll save money on editing costs if you submit your most polished work and format your manuscript in standard, simple ways.

Redundancies and Pleonasms

Today’s blog post is by freelance editor Arlene Prunkl of PenUltimate Editorial Services. Until I read Arlene’s post, I’d never heard of the word pleonasm before, which sounds like some sort of substance you’d look at under a microscope. And who knew that there was even a word for all those little redundancies I’ve always gotten such a kick out of? I hope you enjoy Arlene’s wonderfully succinct and informative post.

Redundancy is just one of the many problems that fall under the general category of wordiness. A redundant phrase or expression is called a pleonasm. You may think you know when a redundancy occurs, but some of them can be subtle.

How often have you heard a friend say something like this: “An unexpected surprise came when a pair of baby twins was born at 12 midnight”? What is a surprise if not unexpected? What are twins if not a pair? Who can be born but a baby? When is midnight if not at 12? Your friend could just as well have said, “A surprise came when twins were born at midnight” with far less repetition.

Or what if you heard someone say, “The armed gunman gave an advance warning that he would make death threats on their lives”? Can you find the pleonasms in that sentence? The expressions we use are full of unwitting redundancy.

I’ve prepared a good long list of pleonasms; some of them are rather funny. Can you see what’s wrong with these? Can you think of any others? Once you start paying attention to each of your words, I’m sure you’ll begin to detect occasional redundancies. In fact, email me with your pet peeve redundancies and pleonasms, and I’ll add them to this list!

– Dry desert
– Free gift
– End result
– Over and over again
– Whether or not
– Former business failed/former ex-husband
– Personal friends/personal opinion/my personal anything
– Standard orthodoxy
– Genuine original
– Ancient fossil
– Basic necessities/basic fundamentals
– Major milestone
– Linger behind
– Rugged mountain range
– Quickly mushroomed
– Interconnect/intermix/interlink
– Future ahead looks bright
– Main thrust
– Small cubbyhole
– Familiar fixture
– Single most/single biggest
– Point in time/period of time
– Death threats on his life
– Close proximity
– Actual experience/past experience
– Advance planning/advance warning/advance reservations
– All meet together/join together
– Armed gunman
– 12 midnight/12 noon
– Autobiography of one’s life
– Awkward predicament
– Cease and desist
– Each and every
– First and foremost
– Cheap price/expensive price
– Commute back and forth
– Consensus of opinion
– Difficult dilemma
– Estimated roughly/guesstimated
– Filled to capacity
– Frozen ice
– General public
– Green in color
– Natural instinct
– Null and void
– Pre-recorded
– The reason is because
– Regular routine
– Suddenly exploded
– Surrounded on all sides
– Broke both his legs
– The winter months
– Postponed until later
– Mutual cooperation
– In order to…

Are Grammar-checking Websites Worth the Bother?

A client mentioned recently that she has a thirty-dollar monthly subscription to a certain popular website that promises to check your spelling, grammar, punctuation, style, and word choice for you. I should say at the outset that I’m biased and tend to turn up my nose at sites like these; I don’t imagine that they have a hope of ever replacing me or my editor colleagues, so I don’t lose any sleep over the fact of their existence. Feeling a little mischievous, I thought it would be entertaining to run an experiment to see exactly how accurate my client’s grammar-checking site really is. I signed up for the free seven-day trial and wracked my brains to come up with some excruciatingly bad text. This is what I submitted to the grammar checker for assessment:

The lion tapped his crown and screamed quietly, now that Im kind of the forest, I’m kinda loosing my mine.

Your majesty, with all due respect, their is no kneed to carry on in this fashion, felicia robinson his advisor said patiently. Its not appropriate. Yew have had plenty of time to get used to our knew roll, four you have been king of the forest for quiet some time. The time for complaining has past, you must except your responsibilities more better than you have bin doing

Bee that as it may the lion inserted boldly, but I am not pre-pared. And when am I two have time to eat steak, eggs, and peanut-butter.

My text had a grand total of thirty errors, and the grammar checker found just ten of them. Yes, it knew that losing  and prepared were spelled wrong, and it realized that certain homophones were the wrong ones, like their and yew. And it picked up a comma splice and the improper comparative more better.

But on the whole, it performed dismally. Yes, it did find a number of the misused homophones, but it missed others such as past, bee, and four. So much for the “contextual spelling check.” And although it claims to be concerned with word choice, it completely missed screamed quietly in the first line, and it seemed to think that inserted was fine when asserted was what I meant. Its grasp of punctuation was abysmal, as it didn’t seem to know that my passage included dialogue and therefore needed quotation marks. Nor did it realize that the last sentence was a question and required a question mark at the end, or that Im needed an apostrophe. And sadly, it missed that peanut butter isn’t hyphenated.

Possibly worse than the things it missed was the wrong advice it gave me. It told me that in be (okay, I did write bee) that as it may the may should be maybe, dismissed my use of the pronoun you as improper in academic writing (not that the nonsense I fed it could be deemed in any way academic), and dissed my use of and at the beginning of a sentence. It called its not appropriate a sentence fragment, failing to recognize that all that was needed to make it a proper sentence was an apostrophe in the first word. It didn’t recognize that felicia robinson was a proper name that simply required capitals; instead it told me that the words were actually misspelled. I was taken to task for using kind of (which was actually a typo–from the context it should have been apparent that I meant king of), yet it somehow missed kinda in the same sentence.

Okay, I admit that the test I gave it was tricky; I threw everything I could think of at it with the intention of messing with its so-called mind. Perhaps I was unnecessarily cruel to the poor thing. But all the types of errors I threw at it are certainly common enough in manuscripts; they’re just usually not present in such mind-twisting quantities.

Should you as a writer rely on grammar-checking websites? Absolutely not. Though they may offer interesting tidbits of information about grammatical rules in their analyses, they can’t even begin to grasp subtle or even not-so-subtle contextual issues, so they will miss a good portion of the errors–two-thirds, if you go by my results–and can misinterpret that which is actually correct. If you are really concerned about accuracy, you need the judgment of an actual human being, and there is simply no substitute for a good editor.

Is Pointing Out Errors in English Just Plain Rude?

I hate to admit to such poor taste, but recently I was watching a certain TV show in which brides try on wedding dresses before an entourage of friends and family members who often seem all too eager to rip their self-esteem to shreds. If there’s anything good to be said about this show, it’s that it provides valuable lessons in how not to behave. All that aside, I was horrified the other night when the mother of a hapless bride criticized her dress, saying that it needed more embezzlement. “Embellishment!” I shouted to the screen. “Embellishment, not embezzlement!” The usage crime went unnoticed by the bride or anyone else for that matter, and I wonder what I would have done if, God forbid, I’d been sitting in that bridal salon with that unpleasant family. Although I wouldn’t have shouted the way I did to the TV, I would have been awfully tempted to say something, even a meek and mild, “Um, did you happen to mean embellishment, perchance?”

Outside the context of teaching or editing, is it ever all right to point out errors in English? Being a polite Canadian, I seldom do it. But being an editor, I’m always dying to. Honestly, I hate to see the English language abused, and I think it’s vital that people make the effort to speak and write correctly. If I didn’t think this way, I wouldn’t be doing what I do. As well, when you edit people’s writing for a living, it’s sometimes hard to fall out of the habit of pointing out mistakes. And so my polite Canadian self is invariably at war with my editor self, generating a lot of inner turmoil whenever I hear someone mangling the language. Of course, in this matter of correcting versus not correcting, context is everything. I’ll tactfully point out errors to my Russian friend at the dog park because she’s told me before that she wants to speak better English. She’s never taken offence, so no harm done. But you’re really putting your neck on the line when you choose to correct people you don’t know all that well, no matter how politely you do it.

Recently, I attended a networking event and was sitting beside a woman I’d chatted with perhaps once or twice before. She was promoting a book she’d written and showed me a postcard that summarized the plot. She knows I’m an editor, and she pointed out an error in the postcard to me. I read the rest of it and noticed an ungrammatical, wordy sentence that was actually much more of a heinous crime than the typo she’d noticed. Hesitantly, I told her it was ungrammatical and then went on to suggest a better sentence she could use in its place. With this act, I extinguished all joy. She just looked at me grimly, and a profoundly awkward silence passed between us. In her mind, I had committed a serious faux pas, and we barely spoke another word to each other for the rest of the event.

The way I see it, by pointing out the first error, she opened the door for me and I merely walked through it. And I said what I did in the spirit of helpfulness; I could see how the postcard could be improved, and thought I should take the opportunity to tell her how to do it. But perhaps I’m wrong about the appropriateness of my actions. What would you have done if you’d been in my situation? Have you ever pointed out someone’s error to his or her face, only to have it backfire? Is it ever right, outside the context of editing someone’s writing or teaching them about the language, to point out errors?

Seeing Editors as Allies, Not Enemies

I belong to an online writers’ and editors’ group, and when time allows, I entertain myself by catching up on the discussions in the forums. People generally behave themselves admirably, but the writers, most of whom are self-publishing, do lash out at editors from time to time. One day, I saw an author complaining that she’d been ripped off to the tune of three thousand dollars by an editor. Other forum participants were quick to become indignant that any editor would even dream of charging her such an amount to edit her book. What an outrage!

Feeling profoundly irritated, I wrote that it was ridiculous to consider the cost outrageous without knowing the facts–after all, the author hadn’t even mentioned what the word count was or told us anything about the nature of the book. Nor had we seen a sample of the writing. Without this information, no one could possibly know the extent of the editing required. And had anyone even considered the question of what the author actually received for her money? As she later revealed, the answer was nothing–she paid three thousand dollars to the “editor,” who never delivered any work at all. The unsuspecting  author had not been dealing with a professional editor–she’d fallen victim to a smooth-talking scam artist.

Apart from the author’s misfortune, what bothered me about this whole exchange was the readiness of the writers who were commenting to believe that editors are taking them for a ride. Apparently, some writers still don’t see the value in what editors have to offer. I suspect that those who feel this way have never actually had their own work edited, so they can’t even begin to understand the invaluable contributions an editor can make to a manuscript. As well, such writers fear criticism, as most of us do to one degree or another, but rather than being able to perceive it as helpful and constructive, they feel threatened by it. And so they insist on standing in their own way, and the book suffers as a result.

I still occasionally meet people who think that all editors do is correct typos; they confidently assert that they can do their own spell-check and grammar check, thank you very much–as if spelling and grammar were all there was to it. But editors are involved in shaping the entire manuscript, and they cover the broad strokes as well as the fine details. A good editor will diplomatically call attention to a plot that doesn’t even get off the runway, loose ends that dangle messily, a protagonist who bores readers to tears, or a character who talks like he’s a nineteenth-century British aristocrat instead of the twentieth-century American student he’s supposed to be. Furthermore, a good editor offers constructive advice for fixing these problems.

I believe that writers who don’t appreciate what editors can do for their work are in a small and ever-shrinking minority. But often the writers who need editorial help the most are the very ones who are most resistant to receiving it. It’s time that such resistant writers began to see editors as allies who can help them create their best possible work, not as enemies who will either take advantage of them or belittle them. All editors contend that every writer needs an editor, and most writers I know wholeheartedly agree with this contention. And as an editor who also writes, I know that I’ll need an experienced and eagle-eyed editor to help me with my book before I publish it; I wouldn’t dream of skipping this essential step. Even for the best writers, the choice is clear: if you’re putting your book out there for public consumption, hire a professional editor.

Updated Guide to Using Track Changes

When I first started working with self-publishing authors, I discovered that many of them weren’t all that familiar with how to use Track Changes in Word 2007 and 2010. They didn’t always know what to do when they received their edited copy, all marked up with an array of additions, deletions, and comment balloons. A few seemed too timid to ask me what to do, so I thought it would be best to create an easy-to-follow guide to initiate them into the process. My guide has undergone a few tweaks over the past few months, but I’m proud to say that today I’m finally rolling out what I think is the ultimate guide. Please take a moment to check out Learning Track Changes in MS Word 2007 and 2010: A Quick Guide for Authors.

This ultimate guide to Track Changes has received editorial input from none other than Arlene Prunkl of PenUltimate Editorial Services in Kelowna, B.C. Arlene is both a dear friend and an esteemed colleague who is now celebrating her tenth year as a professional editor. In 2011, Arlene was a finalist for the Tom Fairley Award for Editorial Excellence, which is the top editorial award in Canada. In reviewing my article, she made editorial suggestions that never would have occurred to me–proving that even editors need to be edited. I am truly grateful for Arlene’s contributions to this new version of my Track Changes guide, which she also features on her own website.

Usage Misdemeanours: Flair and Flare

Discussions of taste and style often bring to light confusion over the homophone pair flair and flare. In its advertising, a restaurant might claim to have  a “flare” for French cuisine, leading word-nerd readers to joke about the possibility that there are flaming dishes on the menu. But in most cases, there’s no need for alarm since no food is on fire–flare is simply being used when flair is intended, which is the usual sort of misuse when it comes to this pair.

The definition of flair is fairly straightforward and frequently concerns matters of style. Someone who dresses with flair, for example, is stylish and fashionable by current standards, or has a style all their own. Those with flair display an aesthetic sensibility and a natural ability to be discriminating and discerning. But the idea of flair extends beyond good taste to include certain specific talents and aptitudes unique to an individual. You may have a flair for any number of things, from growing orchids to dancing the tango. Flair is invariably a noun.

Flare has a great many more definitions than flair, and can be used as both a noun and a verb. A flare is often some sort of flame, usually a dazzlingly bright one that burns unpredictably. Flares can be flames that are distress signals or those that are dropped from aircraft to illuminate a target. Any device that produces such flames is also known as a flare. In the context of fire, flare is also used as a verb, so a flare itself could be said to flare suddenly, bursting into a sudden and dramatic blaze.

A related use of flare comes from the field of astronomy. There are solar flares, which are sudden increases or decreases in the brightness of a star that result in obvious changes in the magnitude of such stars. In photography, we also have flare, generally considered a bad thing, as it refers to undesirable illumination in a photograph or negative, often visible as a foggy-looking patch, resulting from reflection within a lens.

Beyond its associations with light, flare in used as both a noun and a verb in the context of an emotional response. A sudden outburst of emotion, usually anger, is a flare or a flare-up, and your temper can be said to flare. Similarly, angry, aggressive and contagious sorts of diseases are also said to have flare-ups or to flare up. All these states are anything but subtle, and flare is also a verb that means to display something in a conspicuous way. You could, for example, flare your red scarf at someone to attract attention.

The meanings I’ve mentioned so far often involve sudden, dramatic changes or motion, but flaring can also be gentler in nature. Something that flares may widen gradually from its top or bottom. This sort of flaring is often used to describe clothing, so a dress may be said to flare slightly at the hemline. Not to be forgotten are those pants with trouser legs that widen below the knee–the ubiquitous flares or bell-bottomed pants of the ’60s and ’70s. They have been revived in less extreme forms ever since and in their current incarnation are called boot-cut pants.

I haven’t completely exhausted all the possible meanings of flare here, but I have covered the major ones. When determining whether to use flair versus flare, here are a few points to keep in mind. If it’s a verb you need in the sentence, then by default the word you must use is flare. However, if you need a noun, then deciding is a little trickier. If you’re talking about taste, style, or a particular talent or aptitude, then flair is unquestionably the word you want. If you’re talking about flames, lights, or tempers, then flare should be your choice. And no matter how much flair they may possess, trousers with wide legs are always flares.

My Writing Has Gone to the Dogs

I consider myself primarily an editor, but every once in a while, I cross over to the other side of the great divide and write. It’s seemingly for pleasure, if you can call fussing over your own words instead of someone else’s pleasurable. Mostly, I write blog posts, but I also write fiction. Part of the reason you haven’t seen a blog post from me over the last couple of weeks is that I have been absorbed in writing a short story for a contest. It has been a sort of exquisite agony for me.

Writing fiction when I’m much more accustomed to editing it is good for me because it deepens my appreciation of what my clients go through when they’re developing their plots, characters, and settings. I’ve always been in awe of those who seriously undertake the daunting process of creating fictional worlds, and when I struggle to create my own, it reinforces my respect for the process and reminds me to tread lightly and tactfully upon the manuscripts that writers submit to me for editing.

But of course, I don’t just write fiction because it’s good for me. Certain themes spark my imagination. When I discovered that there was a short story competition dedicated to dog-themed fiction, I knew I had to enter it. I puzzled over the challenge of creating my canine protagonist, who could express his thoughts and emotions only through body language, behaviour, and vocalizations (but as stated in the contest rules, he was not allowed to speak). I struggled over how to make the dog the engine that drives the plot and how to make him upstage his human companions and take the spotlight. I agonized over how to make my furry main character show the same depth of character and emotion that any human protagonist should have.

My inspiration for the character came, not surprisingly, from my own dog. I began observing Trinka’s body language and behaviours and thinking about them in relation to what she was trying to communicate. She’s an amazingly vocal dog who apparently wants to have conversations with me–if only she could figure out how to speak English. After this period of careful observation, my plot seemed to come effortlessly to me one night, a genuine bolt from the blue. But getting everything down on the page was, of course, another story.

I fussed and I fiddled for days; you know how it goes. I had the whole thing packaged up and ready to mail today when it occurred to me that I’d forgotten a small but crucial detail. So I opened the envelope, only to find that I was also missing an important word, right there in the first paragraph. Even though I had probably read the story fifteen times before, I sat down and read it out loud, determined to catch any other niggling little errors that remained.

The tweaking could have gone on forever, but it was time to put a stop to it. I was well and truly done and, I admit, rather pleased with my work. When I finally sealed the envelope for good, I experienced a rush–or rather, a fantastic big whoosh–of elation that made the thought of all that fussing and fiddling fade away into nothing.

Trinka, the inspiration for my recent foray into fiction

Usage Misdemeanours: Palate and Palette

Homophone duos and trios are notorious for creating confusion–witness there, their, and they’re, for example. People sometimes aren’t sure when to use which word, and unfortunate usage misdemeanours ensue, such as “Their going to have to learn to use there homophones properly.” Lately, I have noticed problems with using the duo palate and palette correctly.

Misuse of this pair is rampant in restaurant reviews, advertising, and websites. Palette is typically used when palate is meant. I found the most compellingly awful example of this misuse on a restaurant website that declared that they offered an “ecclectic [sic] menu to suit any pallette [sic].” What made this example particularly bad was that palette was misspelled and should have been palate anyway. (And the extra c in eclectic was a nice touch.) The error pile-up in this example takes it from the level of a misdemeanour to that of a crime.

In an effort to rid food writing of palate versus palette errors, I’ll do my best to eradicate the confusion. First, let’s consider palate. Anatomically speaking, your palate is the roof of your mouth, that structure, both hard and soft, that separates your oral cavity from your nasal cavity. Your palate is also your sense of taste, and the idea of taste extends from your taste buds to notions of aesthetic taste and appreciation in general. So it would be quite correct to say that “the exquisite wine satisfied Cynthia’s discriminating palate,” but you could also say that “the raucous sounds offended Ariel’s palate.” However, the word seems most often used in connection to the gustatory sense.

Then there’s palette. It is used to refer to an oval or oblong board with a thumb hole upon which an artist mixes paint, but it also refers to the colours that are arrayed on such a board. So an artist could be said to use “a rainbow palette of colours covering the entire spectrum.” Famous artists are said to have particular palettes, or characteristic ranges of colour, in their work. Palette needn’t be restricted to paint, of course, as fashion designers, interior decorators, and graphic designers using computers also have their colour palettes.

The definition of palette can also extend beyond visual art to describe a whole range of materials or techniques in other realms. For example, you could say that “the symphony consisted of a rich palette of evocative tones” or “the chef used a dazzling palette of exotic spices to season the stew.” The latter type of example could explain the current palate versus palette confusion, as the sense of taste is involved here.

I should note that there’s a third homophone, pallet, which most often refers to either a straw bed (from the old French word for straw, paille) or a wooden frame or skid upon which you’d stack goods in a warehouse. I found at least six other definitions for pallet as well, including a potter’s tool. And at least one source I consulted stated that you could use pallet when referring to a painter’s palette. But because pallet seems rarely confused with either palate or palette, I haven’t made it my focus here.

Sometimes when I read about usage, my head starts to swim when I uncover all the assorted meanings and subtle nuances of words. As I don’t want to leave you feeling similarly dazed, here’s a good rule of thumb for using palate versus palette: remember that palate contains the word ate and is most often used in connection to the taste buds. So unless you’re describing a palette of flavours, aromas, or colours, you’re most often going to be using palate if you’re writing about food. I hope you’ll find this rule of thumb more than–ahem–palatable.