Some typos make you look bad. But some of the typos that make you look bad put you in such good company that, in the end, you don’t look so bad after all.
Take, for example, a Twitter post (or “tweet” as we technonarcissists call them) written a few months ago by an AMC network staffer offering a “sneak peak” at an episode of the show “Breaking Bad.”
“Breaking Bad” is a smart show that, I can only presume, has smart viewers. So a “sneak peak” instead of “peek” in promotional copy is more likely to get noticed than a similar typo on, say, a “Work’ It” promo or tattooed on Charlie Sheen’s forehead.
I winced a little at the error, then thought nothing more about it. A few months later, however, an even more respected entertainment industry player made the same mistake. The brilliant writer/director Judd Apatow in a Twitter post announced a “sneak peak.”
His brainy fans didn’t miss it.
“I think you mean ‘sneak peek,’” a user named StealthMountain replied. Apatow was sufficiently amused that he rebroadcast the reply to all his followers, throwing in a quip about being on medication.
Not long afterward, I was among the recipients of an email sent by a state university extension program that offers courses in writing and copy editing. The email subject line enthusiastically announced a chance for a “sneak peak” at a new online learning program that includes — yup — copy-editing classes.
What are the odds that the person who composed that email — a university staffer overseeing professional copy-editing programs — didn’t know the difference between a peak, which is a high point, and a peek, which is a quick or furtive glimpse at something? Not likely.
I’d bet dollars to doughnuts that the brain behind “Bridesmaids” and “Freaks and Geeks” is also clear on the difference. And without even knowing who made the “Breaking Bad” Twitter typo, I’d bet that he or she suffers from no confusion whatsoever about the difference between peak and peek.
I have no doubt that all three of these people have been using “peak” and “peek” correctly in many contexts for many years. But when you put the word “sneak” in front of it, suddenly the brain’s urge to form patterns takes over.
Unless you’re on the lookout, you could end up writing something you never intended.
Regardless of whether it’s an error of understanding or a true typo, a Google search shows that “sneak peak” is a common mistake, garnering 17.5 million hits for the misspelled version compared with 50.8 million hits for the correctly spelled “sneak peek.”
There’s a lesson here, and it’s not that the people who make this typo have inferior communication skills. It’s that clean, polished writing requires more than simple knowledge. It requires vigilance.
As someone whose job is to catch typos in professional writers’ work, I see evidence of this all the time. Writers with proven language skills will often let a “sneak peak” or similar mistake get past them.
So what can you do to avoid this insidious error? If you’re not 100% clear on the difference between “peak” and “peek,” just look them up in a dictionary before you use them. On the other hand, if you’re already quite clear on the matter, the secret to getting “sneak peek” right is to pay attention.
Add this term to your mental list of things you always scrutinize in your own writing. But remember to go easier on the people who don’t.
JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.