Tag Archives: usage

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!

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?

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.

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.