Monday, July 9, 2012

Grammar Check: Have I Piqued Your Interest?

by J. Lea Lopez

Homophones are a grammar pet peeve of mine. There/their/they're. Your/you're. Its/It's. But the one that really gets me is peak, peek, and pique. One of the reasons this particular set of homonyms irritates me is that for every person who goes "Ohhhhh, gotcha, thanks!" when the error is pointed out, there is usually one person who will attempt to justify the mistake by trying to equate the definition of the word they've misused with the intent behind the sentence. But they're still wrong. Let me tell you how and why.

I am far from a grammarian, and although I know plenty about proper word usage (most of the time—Robb Grindstaff has to remind me about farther/further every time!) my eyes have been known to glaze over at some of the more complicated discussions of syntax and such. I don't want YOUR eyes to glaze over here, but in order to finally put the peak/peek/pique thing to rest, we'll have to dig into transitive and intransitive verbs a little bit, in addition to the actual meanings of the words.

Transitive verbs

A transitive verb is one that takes a direct object. She left the door open. Here, left is a transitive verb, because it takes the object the door. The action is being performed directly on the door. The sentence would be incomplete if there weren't an object to go with that verb.

Intransitive verbs

Intransitive verbs do not take a direct object, and are complete without one. Intransitive verbs are (often, I'm not sure if they are always) a state of being. The action is not being performed directly to or on someone/something. She left at intermission. Here, left is an intransitive verb. There is no direct object.

If you aren't sure whether a verb is transitive or intransitive, try to reword the sentence in passive voice, using "by". If you can, it's transitive. If not, it's intransitive. The door was left open by her makes sense. You can't rewrite the second sentence in the same way because it's an intransitive verb.

So what does this have to do with peak/peek/pique?

First of all, let's just throw out peek from this equation because we all know the verb to peek means to glance quickly. It is occasionally used instead of peak, but nobody has ever tried to use the different meanings of peek and peak to justify their misuse. It's mostly a spelling error. Though I hold you, dear readers, to a higher standard, so I really hope you're using that one correctly. ;-)

The big two offenders are peak and pique, which people seem to confuse not only in spelling, but meaning.



verb (used with object)

1. to affect with sharp irritation and resentment, especially by some wound to pride: She was greatly piqued when they refused her invitation.

2. to wound (the pride, vanity, etc.).

3. to excite (interest, curiosity, etc.): Her curiosity was piqued by the gossip.

4. to arouse an emotion or provoke to action: to pique someone to answer a challenge.

5.Archaic. to pride (oneself) (usually followed by on or upon).

verb (used without object)

6. to arouse pique in someone: an action that piqued when it was meant to soothe.


verb (used without object)

14. to project in a peak.

15. to attain a peak of activity, development, popularity, etc.: The artist peaked in the 1950s.

verb (used with object)

16. Nautical. to raise the after end of (a yard, gaff, etc.) to or toward an angle above the horizontal.

From these definitions, you can see that the proper statement would be That short skirt and low-cut top piqued his interest and NOT That short skirt and low-cut top peaked his interest.

The sentence clearly means that the provocative clothing aroused the man's interest. Further, you can look at the fact that if you used peak here, it would be a transitive verb, because it has the direct object of his interest. (His interest was piqued by the clothes.) But the only definition given of peak as a transitive verb (used with object) is a nautical reference. You can peak the gaff while sailing, which would mean you raised the after end above the horizontal. The other definitions are intransitive usages of peak.

While doesn't list peak as a transitive verb meaning "To bring to a maximum of development, value, or intensity" or "to cause to come to a peak", there are other sources that do. This is where you get people trying to justify the use of peak in sentences like the one above.

They argue that the sexy clothing could have brought the man's interest to a maximum of intensity, or could have caused his interest to come to a peak, and so that sentence could be correct.

But it's not. It sounds ridiculous, and it looks ridiculous. As a reader, I would never assume a writer intended that meaning of peak, and as a writer, I would never construct a sentence that way. If that's truly the intent of the sentence why wouldn't one simply say The short skirt and low-cut top brought his interest to a peak. There's no grey area about meaning there. Although it's still a ridiculous sentence. If some skimpy clothing brings a character's interest to the highest point, I sure hope that character is a 12-year-old boy who gets big thrills from very little.

To be honest, I don't know why some dictionaries list peak as a transitive verb in anything other than the nautical usage. ( doesn't; Oxford doesn't; Merriam-Webster does, but doesn't specify anything about nautical usage; You Dictionary does; American Heritage does.) Perhaps it's an old usage that has fallen out of style? I'm not sure. But it's used so far and between that I couldn't find a single usage of it as a transitive verb after lots of Googling and discussion with word nerds on Facebook and Twitter.

So there you have it. Now you know the proper definition of pique versus peak, and should you ever forget which you want to use, look at whether you're dealing with a transitive or intransitive verb. With the exception of the nautical usage we covered above, you should NOT be using peak as a transitive verb. That should take care of using peak when what you want to use is pique.

And of course, please don't use peek when you mean to use either of the other two. Just don't.

If I ever see any of you write "It peaked my interest", I will call you on it. I might have a temper tantrum about it first, but then I'll call you on it.

What are your grammar pet peeves? And which mistakes do you find yourself making?

J. Lea Lopez is a writer with a penchant for jello and a loathing for writing bios. Find her on Twitter or her blog, Jello World. She has had some short stories published, most recently in the Spring Fevers anthology.


Jeremy Bates said...

My Korean students would shudder (not shutter) when reading (not reeding) this post.

Every darn time I pull out the grammar book and wave it in the air with my hand, I hear the groans. lol

Good explanation of transitive and intransitive verbs by the way!

Kela McClelland said...

I'm not sure that I really have any grammar pet peeves. But the ones mentioned in this post are definitely up on the annoyance list.

Btw, I love your grammar posts, J. :D

Jemi Fraser said...

I didn't know peak even had a verb form. I'm apparently not a nautical type (no surprise there). Then and Than drive me crazy when they're misused too.

Lynn Proctor said...

to be honest and i probably shouldn't admit this--seeing i am a teacher--but lie lay still freaks me out :)

J. Lea Lopez said...

Jeremy - thank you! Glad you enjoyed the post.

Kela - thank you and I'm happy you enjoy when my word nerd shows :-)

Jemi - yes, then and than! So annoying haha.

Lynn - lie/lay still trip me up, too. I'm always dashing off to google to straighten myself out haha. But at least we *understand* that there *is* a difference, right? :-)

Jean Oram said...

I used to abuse commas like you wouldn't believe. Now, I am a bit better, but semi-colons and colons make me pause still. I get in the self-doubt circle with those ones. I usually use the right word though. Although I sometimes typo the wrong one. And usually get called on it. :) (I don't mind.)

Debra McKellan said...

I did a whole Facebook article about this once. Would/Could/Should HAVE. I hate when I see people use OF instead of have. Not everything is phonetic!

The whole double letters before "ed" issue trips me up still. Did the rule change??

Charmaine Clancy said...

I had peek and peak errors in my first manuscript of My Zombie Dog. I know the difference, but sometimes your fingers type the word they think you are about to say, a bit like autocorrect. It's never good when fingers think for themselves.

Matt Sinclair said...

I love a good grammatical discussion

Christopher Hudson said...

Homophones are a particularly cruel joke on us poor dyslexics.

Jolie du Pre said...

Thank God for Grammar Nazis. LOL! If I'm every unclear about anything, I can always look online and get the answer.

Jolie du Pre
Precious Monsters

J. Lea Lopez said...

Christopher - my sympathies! lol I forgive any homophone mistakes I might see from you ;-) Though to be honest, I'm willing to forgive writers who innocently make the mistake (whether it's dyslexia, or like Charmaine said, your fingers type one thing when your brain is thinking another) but who know there IS a difference. What really irks me is people who either have no clue, or don't care. Although is it mean of me to be so judgmental of people who don't know what they don't know...? haha

Jolie - Well if peek/peak/pique is one that you need reminding of, feel free to bookmark us ;-) I still have to look up plenty of grammar questions. Thank goodness for Google.

hannah starr said...

I'm beginning to realize I'm becoming a grammar Nazi. But honestly it's the fact that I care to use it the right way. Maybe it was my mother who went all kinds of phsyco on me when anyone would always say "these ones". so anybody want to take a crack at it? Is it proper to say these ones?

Romilda Gareth said...


Unknown said...

I've never heard or read "pique" used with any object other than "interest" or "curiosity". Does anyone have an example beyond those two words?

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