Thursday, July 29, 2010

Grammar Nazi, Using Tack

Grammar Nazi here. It has been a while.

Today, we learn the difference between tact and tack. Once again, words related phonetically, but not by definition.

To tack – or to change course – has its roots in nautical usage. Tack, of course, is the rope used to anchor certain sails in place as the wind pushes on them. To change tack means to anchor the sail differently, to effect a change in direction. That change of direction, to sailors, is called tacking. Thus the word’s usage in common speech for a change of direction.

Tact is something completely different – and me being a Grammar Nazi, you might suspect I don’t possess it. Tact, per the American Heritage Dictionary, is “the ability to appreciate the delicacy of a situation and to do or say the kindest or most fitting thing.” An admirable quality to be sure. But not an admirable word to use when you mean you want to change the direction of a conversation.

Again, I have to blame phonetics. The final T in tact, is a soft T and thus, for some people, is lost, especially when people hear the word used rather than reading it. So to confuse tact with tack is easy to understand phonetically.

This is one of the reasons those detestable old English class vocabulary lists are so important. Yes, we can and should increase our vocabulary through the spoken word, but knowing how to spell the words we learn is as important as knowing how they’re said and what they mean, else we look like fools mixing words up. And yes, I did just end that sentence with a preposition. Notify Winston Churchill at once.

No comments: