Peak, Peek, and Pique

These three homophones are easy to confuse, and frequently peak is mistakenly substituted for peek and pique. Pay special attention when you use these words to make sure you choose the correct spelling. Also note that each of these words has multiple forms (all of them have noun and verb forms). Peak is the highest point or to reach the maximum. Peek is a secretive or brief look. Pique is resentment, pride, a type of fabric, or to arouse interest.
  • The climbers reached the peak of the mountain.
  • I peeked into the bag when she wasn’t looking.
  • Your provocative statements have piqued my interest.
  • His popularity peaked in the 80s.
  • With my curiosity piqued, I peeked into the cave that was near the peak of the hill.

You Could Care Less?

If you care about something, then you could care less. However, if you want to emphasize the point that you don’t care about something, then the appropriate form to use is couldn’t care less. Using could care less when you mean you don’t care at all ruins your point. Could care less implies that you care some and you are able to care less than you do. Couldn’t care less means you don’t care at all. Thus, you are not able to care less.
  • I couldn’t care less what he does with the money.
  • She told Alice that she couldn’t care less.
  • Bob was about to retire; he couldn’t care less.
  • Suzy couldn’t care less about the color of the walls.
  • I thought Fred cared, but he told me he couldn’t care less.

Handling Percentages

In nontechnical writing, percentages are usually expressed as numerals followed by the word percent. In technical writing, the % symbol is used instead of percent, with no space between the numeral and symbol. Please note that if a sentence begins with a percentage, normal number rules apply and the percentage is spelled out (see the first example below). Also, a hyphen is not used when the percentage is acting as a modifier (see the second example below). A nontechnical context is assumed for each of the following examples.
  • Seventy-five percent of men agreed with the statement.
  • The factory was operating at 50 percent capacity.
  • He has completed 33 percent of the project.
  • She garnered 55.4 percent of the popular vote.
  • I answered 100 percent of the questions correctly.

The En Dash with Compound Adjectives

One use of the en dash (), which is distinct from the em dash () and hyphen (-), is to join the elements of a compound adjective when one of its parts is an open compound or when both of its parts are hyphenated compounds. This use of the en dash can be handy, but The Chicago Manual of Style recommends it to be used “sparingly.” If a better solution is available, it should be employed instead (“A low-tech, low-end solution” is probably the better choice in the third example below).
  • The pre–Civil War period was a time of political turmoil.
  • I love reading the work of Stephen King–influenced authors.
  • A low-tech–low-end solution was the only choice.
  • Is she a Bram Stoker Award–winning author?
  • He loves Garth Brooks–style ballads.

It's versus Its

It’s is the contraction for it is and it has; its is the possessive form of it. While we’ve all probably seen these prescriptions since we were children, confusion of the two forms is still fairly common. It's in a writer's best interest to take an extra moment to make sure the correct form is used.
  • It’s [it has] been a long day.
  • The cat licked its paws.
  • It’s [it is] sitting on the kitchen table.
  • The house is starting to show its age.
  • Its fur is long and full of knots; it’s [it is] a pain to groom.

Discreet and Discrete

Two commonly confused words that I come across when proofreading or copyediting are discreet and discrete. While these homophones share a common origin and the spellings differ only in the order of the final two letters, there is a distinct difference between the meanings of the words. Discreet means “prudent, modest, or unobtrusive” and predominately refers to behavior. Discrete means “distinct, unconnected, or finite” and emphasizes the distinctness of something.
  • Robert was discreet about his problems.
  • There are four discrete walls in the room.
  • I discreetly handed him the money.
  • Break up the project into discrete parts.
  • All of Tim’s business dealings were discreet.

Plurals of Acronyms and Initialisms

The plural of an acronym or initialism (an abbreviation formed by using the initial letters of multiword terms and sounded out letter by letter, such as FBI or CEO) is usually formed by adding -s. No apostrophe is needed. Some style guides permit plurals to be formed by adding -s, but there are good reasons not to use an apostrophe when forming the plural of an acronym or initialism. First, an acronym or initialism may have a possessive form (CEO’s office, FBI’s manpower), so it’s important to distinguish between the forms. Second, the mistake of forming plurals of nouns by adding -s is rampant (the Smith’s when it should be the Smiths), and there is no good reason to reinforce this mistake.

There are still two cases when adding -s to an acronym or initialism is preferred: if periods are used with capital letters (M.B.A.’s) or if lowercase letters are used (jpeg’s). The reason -s is still used in these cases is to avoid possible confusion of the -s being a part of the acronym or initialism.
  • CDs
  • DVDs
  • pdf’s
  • SOSs
  • SUVs

Commas with Direct Address

Commas are used to set off names used in direct address. In fiction, this happens predominantly during dialogue between characters.
  • Bobby, will you pick up some bread from the store?
  • Thank you for bringing the coffee, Suzie.
  • Listen up, esteemed colleagues, because this is important.
  • John, you know that I love you.
  • Thank you, friends.

Apostrophe of Omission

A principal function of the apostrophe (’) is to denote the omission of letters or numbers in contractions. Make sure that the apostrophe is in the appropriate location, and consult the dictionary when necessary. Merriam-Webster’s lists many contractions and their variants. When an apostrophe begins a word—like ’em or ’twas—make sure that you’re using an apostrophe, not a left single quotation mark (‘).

A few examples:
  • rock ’n’ roll (rock and roll)
  • weren’t (were not)
  • don’t (do not)
  • ’97 (1997 or 1897 or 1797 . . .)
  • he’s (he is)

An Everyday Problem

One of the most common mistakes I see is the misuse of everyday for every day. The former form is an adjective, meaning “commonplace” or “ordinary,” and the latter form is an adverb or a noun, meaning “each day.” Here are a few examples:

Every day [each day] is special.”

“Bob disliked the grind of everyday [commonplace] life.”

“Johnny gives money to Billy every day [each day].”

“Sally performs everyday [commonplace] tasks every day [each day].”

Resources for Writers

There are numerous resources available for writers, editors, and everyday people who write. While many of these resources will provide you with reliable guidance, there are certain ones that are considered “standards” in the publishing industry. The following resources are the ones I use most frequently during my editing process, and they would be helpful additions to any writer’s library.

·    A good dictionary. There are a number of good dictionaries available at this time. The dictionary I normally use is Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Merriam-Webster’s is a trustworthy resource that is well respected in the publishing industry. Other dictionaries that are dependable include The American Heritage College Dictionary, New Oxford American Dictionary, and Random House Webster’s Dictionary. Since the English language is constantly changing, make sure you have the most recent edition of your dictionary of choice.
·    A good thesaurus. As with dictionaries, there are a number of good thesauruses available. Roget’s International Thesaurus is widely considered the industry standard. Others include Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Thesaurus and The American Heritage College Thesaurus.
·    The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. This diminutive book could be considered a writer’s bible. I would classify this book as a must-have for anyone who writes. Besides a quality dictionary and dependable thesaurus, The Elements of Style is the most useful resource a writer can own. You’ll gain a solid understanding of grammar and style issues if you regularly consult this guide.
·    The Chicago Manual of Style. Nearly every book dealing with grammar or writing style acknowledges that The Chicago Manual of Style is the authoritative reference for the publishing industry. The CMS is a bit pricey, however, and if you use an editor, you probably don’t need to own a copy. But if you want to know the nitty-gritty details about almost every issue related to writing, this book is an invaluable resource.
·    Garner’s Modern American Usage. This guide is a treasure trove of information for those who want to gain a deeper understanding of modern American usage. Bryan A. Garner was a contributor to the most recent edition of The Chicago Manual of Style, and his prescriptions for modern usage are valuable to any writer.

These recommendations are not exhaustive, but if you’re serious about your writing, these resources would serve you well. All of them are well respected in the publishing industry. Whether you’re self-publishing, trying to land a deal with a traditional publisher, or just wanting to add to your writing toolbox, these references are valuable tools to have at your disposal.

Interview with Author Jared Sandman

Please take a moment to read the interview I did (I'm the interviewee) with author Jared Sandman for his Blogbuster Tour. Click here.