English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Phrase origin Usage Word origin

A sneak peek

Q: I’ve always used “at” with “sneak peek,” as in “I had a sneak peek at episode 8.” Lately, I’ve heard people use “of” instead of “at.” That sounds wrong to my ear, perhaps only because of what I’m used to. Is there a preference?

A: There are differences of opinion here. Our research shows that most people prefer “sneak peek at,” but a sizable number would choose “sneak peek of” instead.

Our own preference is for “at.” To our ears, “Take a sneak peek at this” sounds more natural than “Take a sneak peek of this.”

But as we’ve written many times before, the use of prepositions is highly idiomatic, and common usage ultimately determines what is considered standard English.

Why, for instance, do most of us say “a glance at” but “a glimpse of”? Chalk it up to common usage. As with “sneak peek at/of,” we can only examine preferences; we can’t declare one usage right and the other wrong.

Writers of books seem to support our own preference for “sneak peek at” by a wide margin. It’s also preferred among the population as a whole, but not by as wide a margin.

The Google Ngram Viewer, which tracks words and phrases in millions of books, shows “sneak peek at” outnumbering “sneak peek of” by a margin of about seven to one as of 2008, the latest year available.

The graph tracks each phrase as a percentage of all three-word sequences.

It also shows that “sneak peek at” (like the narrower phrase “sneak peek”) first showed up in books in 1951, and that “sneak peek of” followed in 1988.

As you can see, by 2008 the line for “sneak peek at” was sharply higher than that for “sneak peek of.”

We also did ordinary Google searches, which are broader and more up to date but don’t include as many books as the Ngram Viewer. The result is that “sneak peek at” leads “sneak peek of” by a margin of roughly five to four.

The numbers are very fluid, changing from hour to hour, but they always show “sneak peek at” in the lead.

We wondered why the “at” version seems more idiomatic to most people, and we found a couple of hints in the Oxford English Dictionary.

While the OED has no separate entry for the noun phrase “sneak peek,” it has one for the noun “peek,” defined as “a peep, a glance; a quick or furtive look.”

And if you substitute “a peep” or “a glance” or “a furtive look,” the following preposition in the sense we’re discussing would normally be “at” and not “of.”

Furthermore, none of the OED’s citations for the noun “peek,” which was first recorded in 1636, show it accompanied by “of.” When there’s a preposition at all, the noun appears with “at,” “in,” “into,” “through,” or the compound preposition “out of.”

Here are the relevant citations: “one peeke into heaven” (1636); “I jest give a peak in for a minit” (1844); “frequent ‘peeks’ through the slide” (1869); “a peek into the … brooding-room” (1884); “take an occasional peek at these other guys’ hands” (1938); “a sneak peek out of the window” (1969); “get a peek at the land register” (1993).

Similarly, the OED’s entry for the verb “peek,” which showed up in the 14th century, suggests that “at” is the preferred adverb.

Here’s the verb’s definition: “to look through a narrow opening; to look into or out of an enclosed or concealed space; (also) to glance or look furtively at, to pry.” (Note the “at” in italics.)

None of the dictionary’s examples show the verb followed immediately by “of.” The citations, which date back to 1390, show it used with “about,” “at,” “in,” “into,” “in at,” “inside,” “on” (Middle English), “out,” “out of,” “out from beneath,” “over,” “up,” “up in,” and “upward.”

In summary, we’re not surprised that people sometimes take sneak peeks “of” things like movies and games and apps. But for our part, we’ll stick with the “at” version.

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