Writer’s Corner: Problematic “P” Words

By Tenielle Fordyce-Ruff

Well, the pandemic was a wild ride for me!  In the switch to stay-at-home, then pandemic pods, I was also pivoting to online teaching, then I moved to two different law schools in 18 months.  Needless to say I took a pandemic pause from this column.  My life, however, is a little less chaotic now, so I’m back.

Inspired by my pause, I settled on discussing problematic “P” words for my comeback.  Sit back and enjoy learning a little more about “P” words that might give you pause when you’re writing.


This set made me giggle as I was researching this column.  I am certain you all understand the difference by 2023, so no more about this!


Both perimeter and periphery mean an outer boundary.  Perimeter is a clear line, but periphery is more uncertain.

The perimeter of his property was a fence on the north side, but the periphery was unclear on the other sides.

Partake in/Partake of

Partake in means to take part in.  Partake of means to receive a share of something.

Participants partake in a public forum.  Children partake of cake and ice cream parties.


I love this one because it involves ambiguity and measure.  If the parts are physical or you can measure extent, use partly.  If you are referring to quality or the measure is of degree, use partially.

Downtown is full of partly finished buildings.  She is partially recovered from her severe sprain.

If either word could work in context, use partly.  It’s less ambiguous.  And remember, partially also means showing favoritism.  The estate was partially divided among the children.


This is a tricky one.  After all, “the past has passed.”[i]

As an adjective, past means gone or elapsed.  As a noun it refers to time gone by or the history of something.  As a noun, passed refers to the act of passing; as a verb it means to go by or to let go without action.  So, you can reminisce about times past, but the days passed in quiet contemplation.


First, a note about pronunciation here.  Both patent and latent are pronounced with along <a> sound, so they rhyme.  If you say patent with a short <a>, you are talking about a long-term monopoly granted to an inventor.

To be patent, a thing is open and obvious.  To be latent, a thing is hidden.

Her patent talent was knowing obscure grammar; her latent talent was making excellent coffee.


Ah, the blunders this triple create.  Read this:

Her peak at the book about peaks peaked her interest.

If you were to say this out loud, it would sound fine, but not so in writing.  A peak is a mountaintop.  To peek is to take a quick look.  A pique is a fit of resentment, and to pique is to annoy or arouse.

This would be correct:

Her peek at the book about peaks piqued her interest.


These are pronounced the same, and that can lead to frequent misspellings.  Peddle means to sell something (I remember this because peddle and sell both have double letters.)  Pedal means to pump with the foot.

Here’s some fun (somewhat obscure) etymology:  one piano pedal softens sounds, so to soft-pedal is to lower the intensity.  This phrase is often misspelled as soft-peddle.


While frequently used as synonyms, permit and allow have different connotations.

If you permit something, you give it your approval.  To allow something doesn’t connote approval.

The judge overruled the objection and permitted the question.  Hearing no objections, the judge allowed the question.


Another set of frequently misused adjectives.  Practical means realistic (not just theoretical) or advantageous.  Practicable means feasible.

Paying so much more for such little benefit isn’t practical.  The budget increase made hiring another associate practicable.


The verb forms of precede/proceed are switched often and precede is frequently misspelled as preceed.

Precede means to go before in order or rank.  Proceed means to move forward or to carry on.

She preceded him through the door.  After pausing for a moment to survey the room, she proceeded to sit in a corner chair.

Proceeds (the noun) is something that results or accrues.  The proceeds of the stock sale were divided partly, with some reinvested.


Premise refers to logic; it’s a proposition from which a conclusion can be drawn.  Remember this “All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore, Socrates is mortal”?  All men are mortal and Socrates is a man are the major and minor premise in this syllogism.  In fact, we attorneys write using premises all the time.

But, premises (always plural) refers to the space inside the boundaries of a property.  The polite way to tell someone to stay off your lawn is to ask them to leave the premises.


While many of us use these terms interchangeably, they don’t mean precisely the same thing.  Presently can mean immediately or soon, but modern usage also includes the meaning of now.  Currently means now.  Momentarily means lasting for a moment, but it also has come to mean in a moment.

To avoid the ambiguity that imprecise use of these terms can bring, write around them. For instance, use soon or now instead of presently.  Use, in a moment instead of momentarily.  After all, telling your client that court is starting presently when you mean now but they hear soon wouldn’t be good.


I am so happy to be back after a pandemic pause.  The peace of writing for The Advocate again is phenomenal. 

Source note:  The inspiration for this is from Bryan A. Garner, The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style 259-62 (2d ed. 2006).

Tenielle Fordyce-Ruff is a member of the Idaho State Bar and an Associate Clinical Professor of Law at Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law Arizona State University.

[i] Bryan A. Garner, The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style 260 (2d ed. 2006).