Contrived contrition

I’ve never been good at apologies.

Especially when an apology implies a fault or mistake of mine in a subject I hold dear to my heart, it is by far more appealing to me to simply condemn my vocal cords to eternal disuse rather than eke out the pitiful phrase, “I’m sorry.” A year or so ago, I corrected someone on a misspelling of “liaison,” asserting with the confidence that comes only from 18 years’ worth of training in the English language that there was no second “I.” A subsequent Google search of the word prompted an inundation of soul-wrenching doubt of my self-worth. Every grammar-driven apology or correction of mine, I assure you, has been the fundamental catalyst of a short-lived identity crisis.

The worst of these corrections, however, are those that follow on the tails of a technicality. I can stand my ground and force staggered sentences of contrition out through my teeth if I know I’ve erroneously corrected someone, though it hurts to admit it, but when the correction comes from a loophole of sorts — a British spelling or rarely used alternative syntax (which, let’s face it, the culprit most likely wasn’t aware of anyway) — you’ll sooner find the words crushed between my grinding teeth.

This is why when I realized I had technically corrected someone erroneously a week or so ago, instead of telling him and apologizing like a normal person, I decided to write about it in a blog post and casually link him to the page in an (admittedly futile) attempt to somewhat mitigate my shame and resentment.

I’m sure he remembers vividly the quizzical and somewhat skeptical look I gave him during our conversation that day when, following his declaration at some point that his “curiosity’s piqued,” I asked him out of mild suspicion to spell the second word (since he had committed similar errors before). He replied apprehensively as my grammar-loving gut had feared — with none other but the spelling of the word “peaked.”

This, of course, was followed by an extemporaneous tirade from the bottom of my heart about the importance of grammar, spelling and differentiating correctly between homonyms, a caustic diatribe that he endured valiantly, apologizing profusely every time I paused for breath. But to make matters worse, I ordered him to correct his mistake to redeem himself — and he subsequently spelled the word “peeked.”

Many are unaware that these three words, despite having the same pronunciation, have quite distinct meanings. Clearly, what my misinformed friend had meant to say was that his curiosity had been piqued; that is, that something had provoked or raised his curiosity. In this context, the words “peak” and “peek” (which are used to describe things like mountaintops and looking through one’s fingers, respectively) are never used. Nothing can “peak” or “peek” curiosity — at least, not without some strange circumstances.

However, a few days after this incident, it occurred to me in a moment of heart-stopping dread that the sentence “My curiosity’s peaked” is not technically incorrect.  This usage of “peak” is actually valid if the sentence is taken to mean “My curiosity has peaked” instead. In this case, the essential meaning is still conveyed, but in a different way — his curiosity had apparently reached a maximum.

Now, I am certain beyond the shadow of a doubt that this was not my friend’s intention when he said this to me that fateful day. But I am nothing if not a person of integrity and honor, and so I must concede that my five-minute lecture (as well as the accompanying avowal that I’d never speak to him again) was technically uncalled for. So now, in the safe, familiar space of the Internet, I acknowledge with colossal difficulty that his original phrasing was, on the smallest of technicalities, correct.

With that, I graciously leave him to revel in his victory of having at last triumphed over my pedantic grammatical blathering. And though my curiosity may often be piqued when talking to people with questionable grammar, I think I’ll keep my corrections mostly to myself for now — considering that unfortunately, my shame and self-doubt have recently peaked.