take a different tack or tact?

I can’t count the number of times I’ve had someone tell me they caught a typo I missed: I wrote, “take a different tack” when I must have meant “take a different tact.” I’ll admit I sometimes miss typos, but that’s not one of them. It’s possibly the most widely misused phrase I can think of.

“Tack” — the correct word in this context — is actually derived from sailing terminology. The tack is the lower leading corner of the sail; it points the direction the ship is heading. So when a sailboat changes course, it’s changing from one tack to another, or “taking a different tack.”

Tact, on the other hand, really only has one meaning. It’s a keen perception of what is appropriate or considerate. (Think of tactile–>touch–>the right touch.)

9 responses to “take a different tack or tact?

  1. I suspect people get confused because the idiom essentially means “use a different tactic”, which also sounds similar to “take a different tack.” Before I had learned about the nautical origin of the idiom, I thought it was “tact” and assumed it was an abbreviation of “tactic”.

  2. Taking a different tack is particularly apropos, as tacking is when you are coming into the wind or facing sort of an uphill battle.

  3. Yeah, that one bugs me. I think these are much more common though:

    “Taking the reigns” of power when they mean “taking the reins.”
    “Further away” when they mean “farther away,” or farther/further mix-ups in general.

    • I agree on the farther/further issue: When someone says, for instance, “It’s further than you think,” I have taken to asking, “And just how ‘fur’ is it?”

      • Jeff Waterfall

        You’re comment made me smile. My dad used to complain about the same thing, only he would have certainly commented on your use of the word ‘issue’. “It’s NOT an issue” he would exclaim, to anyone he thought was listening, “It’s a problem!”

  4. Thank you for this helpful correction of an error that also has long bothered me. I will quibble with only one statement you make: “possibly the most widely misused phrase I can think of.” I would nominate “begs the question” for that honor!

    It is almost universally misused to suggest that something forces one to ask the question that follows (e.g., “The candidate’s promises demand the question whether he can deliver in this tough economy”).

    The phrase really means that one’s argument presupposes the conclusion one claims to be proving; as Wilson Follett puts it in his wonderful Modern American Usage, one uses “as an argument some disguised form of the proposition to be proved.” An example of proper use of “begging the question”
    is the statement, “Miracles prove the existence of God,” which begs the question of (i.e., assumes) the existence of God (because by definition miracles are acts performed by God).

  5. You might want to proofread your first sentence: “I can’t count the number of times I’ve had some tell me they caught a typo I missed.”

  6. The bigger problem is that usage overwhelms correct grammar. I can argue until I’m blue in the face and still have a roomful of wrong people unconvinced.
    Soon in will enter the dictionary as “take a different tact”. You watch!
    Thank you, President W!

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