Peak, Peek

peak is the highest point of something, and to peak is to reach the highest point.

We reached the peak of Cadillac Mountain just as the sun was setting.

The temperature peaked at 48 this afternoon, then began to drop rapidly.

To peek is “to look through a crevice,” as Noah Webster put it.

See if you can peek into the kitchen and and find out what’s for dinner.

“Peak” is often used where “peek” is meant. This is wrong:

The weather today is in stark contrast to last February. It’s still windy, but the sun is peaking through high clouds and at least for now, it isn’t raining or snowing.

The writer doesn’t mean that the sun is reaching its highest point through the high clouds; he means that it is showing itself through gaps in the clouds—looking through a crevice, in other words. “Peaking” should be “peeking.”

Mixing Letters and Numbers

Sometimes we save space, or typing, by using a number with a suffix:

57th Street

That’s perfectly legitimate, and for larger numbers it’s probably easier to read than spelling the whole thing out:

Fifty-Seventh Street

But we do have to be careful to remember that both the numbers and the letters represent sounds. The number “20” is pronounced “twenty,” for example. So what do we make of this?

A porch near the New Hamburg train station in New York is occupied by strange mannequins dressed in 20ies fashion.

There are many people who absorb information from written text without ever hearing the sounds of the words, and perhaps they won’t see anything wrong with that. But if you were to read that sentence out loud, actually reading all the characters the writer has put in it, this is what you would say:

A porch near the New Hamburg train station in New York is occupied by strange mannequins dressed in twenty-eez fashion.

When you make a number plural, just add an S to it. That’s enough, and anything more is too much.

We have to be similarly careful about making ordinal numbers—like “57th,” for example. That’s fine, but what would you say to these?

The 51th Annual Golden Apple Awards

51th Meeting of the UNWTO Commision for Europe

51th Anniversary Meeting of the Clay Minerals Society

The Editor found “About 473,000 results” for “51th” on Google. But we don’t say “fifthy-oneth.” We say “fifty-first.” That little “th” is wrong, and rather funny to someone who actually hears the sounds of words.

Similarly,

52th meeting of IPDC Bureau

52th WWC Board of Governors Meeting

52th Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference

…and about 233,000 other results for “52th.” We say “fifty-second,” not “fifty-twoth.” Shall we try our luck with 53?

53th District of California

53th anniversary of the Berlin Wall

Kirklin takes charge of Corps, named 53th QM General

We say “fifty-third,” not “fifty-threeth.”

For numbers that end in 1, 2, or 3, adding “th” to the end won’t work. Here’s how to add the right suffixes:

51st

52nd or (less common) 52d

53rd or (less common) 53d.

But wait! Don’t those suffixes violate the fundamental rule above—namely that both the number and the letters are pronounced?

Yes, they do. Life isn’t always fair. We don’t say “fifty-twond.” We’re stuck with the fact that the ordinal numbers first, second, and third are completely different words from the cardinal numbers one, two, and three. But these suffixes are the traditional way of abbreviating those ordinal numbers, so we don’t provoke snickers from the audience.

We’ll Have to Abandon “Contemporary”

You’re reading an article about Chiang Kai-shek in Wikipedia, and you come to this subhead:

Contemporary public perception

What does it mean?

To an old-school scholar, “contemporary” always carries the meaning of “existing at the same time.” Chiang was contemporary with Mao, with Eisenhower, and so on.

To many casual readers, “contemporary” means “in the current moment.” And that’s what it means here: this section of the article is talking about what people think of Chiang now, not what they thought of him in his own time.

Thus the word “contemporary” no longer conveys an unambiguous meaning. Just by reading that subhead, we can’t tell whether that section of the article is going to talk about the public perception of Chiang in his lifetime or the public perception of him right now.

When a word no longer does its job, we have to give it up, however reluctantly. We should reword that subhead this way:

Public perception today

On the other hand, if we wanted to write about how people saw Chiang when he was alive, we could say this:

How Chiang was perceived in his lifetime

There are certain limited uses of “contemporary” that we probably don’t have to abandon. People will still understand “contemporaries” as a plural noun in the right context: “Chiang and his contemporaries.” Art critics may be able to talk about “contemporary art,” as long as they understand each other. (The Editor takes it as given that art critics do not write to be understood by the general public.) “Contemporary” may still mean something in real estate or furniture; the Editor suspects it means “a style that was popular in the 1960s.” As a general term, however, “contemporary” is broken, and we have to throw it away.

Use Words Because They Mean Something

Here is a sentence that starts out to say one thing and ends up saying something completely different:

it-is-unlawful

If you’re using the hold-open latch, you can’t just wander away. That’s what we want to say here.

“Persons using dispensers with hold-open latches must remain at the refueling point during refueling” says it.

So what is “It is unlawful for” doing at the beginning of the sentence? It would be possible to begin the sentence that way, but the rest of the sentence would have to tell us what is unlawful, not what we must do: “It is unlawful for persons using dispensers with hold-open latches to leave the refueling point during refueling” would do it.

The Editor suspects that, for many people, phrases like “it is unlawful” do not mean the sum of their words. Instead, they are symbols that establish a mood. Here, what the writer was thinking was “Warning.” He might just as easily have used an upraised-hand icon or an exclamation point in a triangle, but he didn’t have those on his keyboard, so he typed “IT IS UNLAWFUL FOR” to add a certain atmosphere of warninginess at the beginning. (The Editor might have believed it was a simple mistake, except that this warning was laboriously cut out, laminated, and stuck on every pump in a large gas station near an Interstate exit. There were many opportunities to notice a typing mistake.)

Words do have meanings, and the best way to avoid misleading your readers is to be aware of the meaning of every word you write. Never accept set phrases as set.

By the way, give credit to the writer for the apology. The rule is there for a reason, but it is always good to apologize when you find yourself forced to tell people they can’t do something.

How to Recognize Absolutely Useless Information

Let’s say, hypothetically, that your car battery died. And let’s say that your car has a navigation system that requires a four-digit “Radio/Navigation Code” to reactivate it if it loses power. And let’s say you can’t find the card with the code on it. What do you do?

Not to worry! The manufacturer keeps a Web site where you can retrieve the code. All you need is your vehicle identification number and the serial number of the navigation system.

How do you find the serial number? Oh, wait—there’s a help page.

Serial Number Retrieval Help

There are several places to find your device’s serial number:

The Radio/Navigation Code and the device unit’s serial number are listed on the anti-theft ID card that comes with the vehicle. The card is usually placed in the glove box at the time of delivery.

And that’s all it says. “There are several places,” but it tells me only one place.

That’s limited information, and the way the laws of the universe are currently constituted, it will never be useful to a single sentient being. Ever. No one who has the “anti-theft ID card” with the Radio/Navigation Code on it is ever going to be on this site trying to find the serial number so as to be able to retrieve the Radio/Navigation Code. This entire page is useless information.

How would you have recognized that if you were the writer?

First, the word “several” should have set an automatic flag in your head. You should not be satisfied until you have listed the several ways, or until you have got somebody in the technical department to admit that there’s really only one way. Either the word “several” has to go, or there have to be several ways.

Second, and this is the most important rule in any technical writing, put yourself in the place of the reader. Such a simple rule, but unfortunately it’s a vague one. You have to try to imagine what the reader is doing. In this case, the reader is trying to retrieve the Radio/Navigation Code, right? Therefore, the reader does not have the card with the Radio/Navigation Code on it. You cannot, therefore, assume that the reader will be able to retrieve some other information from the same card.

If you can explain to yourself what problem the reader is trying to solve, you will almost certainly write usable instructions. (The reader is always trying to solve some problem, unless the reader is reading instruction manuals for fun.) If you do not know what problem the reader is trying to solve, then that is the problem you have to solve before you can write anything.

 

“Because of,” “The Cause of”

From the mobile Web site of a certain electric company:

Report an outage

Keep in mind, your outage could be the cause of a breaker or fuse problem. If you have checked your breaker or fuse box, please continue.

The writer clearly meant “your outage could be because of a breaker or fuse problem.”

“Because of” and “the cause of” are more or less opposite in meaning.

“Your outage is the cause of a breaker or fuse problem” means that the power went out, and that made a breaker or fuse problem happen.

“Your outage is because of a breaker or fuse problem” means that you had a breaker or fuse problem, and that made the power go out.

In technical writing, very little things have big consequences. If your writing makes the reader think the opposite of what you actually mean, you have at the very least failed to communicate. But at worst you may have cost yourself or the company you work for a lot of money—in unnecessary support calls, in returned merchandise, or even in lawsuits.