Lessons in language: Tactfully changing tack

Some things have been jarring me lately. Jarring me until my teeth ache. So please excuse me while I have a language rant.

I love language. I love learning new words and phrases, and I love discovering how those phrases came to be. Etymology – the account of how words and phrases originated – is of endless fascination to me.

And because I love language, when I see errors in language written by novelists and journalists, I seem to suffer actual physical pain. It hurts me when people haven’t the faintest idea how to use an apostrophe, or how to spell ‘definite’, or that there is a difference between a ‘magic bullet’ and a ‘silver bullet’ when talking about problem solving.

I’m not talking about errors made by your average Joe/Jo in the street, or in casual communications. Friends writing emails aren’t necessarily professional writers and shouldn’t be held to the same standards. Even for writers – well, typos happen to the best of us. But there is a difference between an obvious typo, and when a writer (or their editor) clearly doesn’t know their grammar/vocabulary/punctuation.

My big gripe at the moment is the phrase ‘changing tact’, to indicate a change of approach to a problem.

The expression is actually ‘changing tack’. Etymologically, the phrase is derived from the nautical term ‘to tack’. When ships tack, they change course relative to the direction of the wind – zig-zagging against the wind to move forward.

Knowing the origin of the phrase makes it easier to remember how to spell it. In context of its origin, the spelling makes perfect sense. Using the word ‘tact’ makes no sense to me at all. I’m sure being sensitive and diplomatic (showing tact) is important in problem solving, but you can’t change that kind of tact. Or do people think it is related to the word ‘tactic’?

I know that English doesn’t always seem to make a lot of sense – although, once etymology is understood it does make better sense. That’s what you get with a language that has been built out of a half dozen other languages – Latin and Celtic, Norman French and Saxon German, the language of the Vikings, everything that’s been borrowed from Arabic, Russian, Hindi and more.

The incorrect use of the word ‘tact’ in this phrase indicates to me that the people using it have never seen it written down. They’ve heard – or rather misheard – the phrase and are just having a stab at how it should be written. This happens a lot with other phrases and spelling. People write ‘tow the line’ instead of ‘toe the line’ all the time; or ‘should of’ instead of ‘should’ve’ (the contraction of ‘should have’). The number of times I’ve seen ‘flout’ (often spelled as ‘flaut’) and ‘flaunt’ (which have completely different meanings) confused in print gives me a toothache.

The thing is, I don’t have a university degree in language (or in anything else, come to that). The reason I have a wide vocabulary and an understanding of grammar and punctuation is essentially because I read. Voraciously. I read biographies and histories. I read SF and crime. I read trashy thrillers and Booker Prize winners. I read classics from the 19th century and new writers from the 21st.  I read children’s books and adult fiction. I read newspapers and magazines. I read the back of the box. I read for fun and education. I read. All the time.

When I come across a word or phrase I don’t understand, and can’t work out from its context in the story, I look it up. I teach myself new language.

If you’re a writer, you should be reading. You should be noting words and phrases and exploring anything that is new, to add to your writer’s language toolbox.

But most of all, you should be writing ‘change tack’ instead of ‘change tact’.

Please. I and my aching teeth will thank you for it.

  • Pingback: Random stuff | Boomerang Books Blog

  • Pingback: index

  • I believe this site has some really good information for
    everyone :D. “Morality, like art, means a drawing a line someplace.” by Oscar Wilde.

  • Pingback: Lessons in Language: All above board and ship shape! « Mortal words

  • Me

    It is change of Tact
    ie Tactic !

    • Nice try, but it’s still not the correct etymology. You could just say you’re changing tactics, but tactic and tact are not the same word, any more than strata and strategy are the same word.

      (I know I appear humourless right now. it’s 9:30am and I haven’t had coffee yet. And you’re wrong. Grumble grumble.)

  • A “writer” who doesn’t read is like a “musician” who has never heard music. Hence the quotation marks.

  • Pingback: Lessons in Language: Writers who don’t read « Mortal words

  • There’s nothing wrong with plain and short if it conveys exactly what you mean! Attempting long, complex words and sentences to sound authorative when you don’t know how to construct that language correctly will never end well.

    Actually, I often find myself having to google a phrase to see how it’s spelled, if I’ve previously only heard it spoken. I’ve been surprised at how difficult it is to find out the correct etymology and spelling of some common phrases.

    I think all writers should read widely. It’s the best way to learn new vocabulary, and to see how that new vocab is correctly spelled!

  • Tact / tack is one I’m fine with because I used to sail a fair bit. Only a surfcat, but I never tact into the wind 😉

    Tow the line is awful. That one makes my teeth ache every time I see it.

    ‘Write what you know’ should apply to vocab as well as subject matter! People who reach for unfamiliar words in order to sound clever aren’t doing themselves any favours, not when they get it wrong.

    The goal should be the opposite: choose the best word, even (especially?) if it’s plain and short.

  • Oh, THANK YOU! This has driven me crazy for years. I will readily admit that I fall into bad habits while writing…especially my endless addiction to ellipses. But I agree with you, that some basic language errors are just really not acceptable, even in casual conversation. So thank you for making me feel less nutty. (Shall we talk “verbage” next? ARGH!)

  • Pingback: 2010 in review « Mortal words

  • naturallydotty


    In these cases I blame my fingers for the error, after all my brain knows how to spell.

  • naturallydotty

    either that or a new word – a Narrelleism!

    • Ouch! This one actually happened because that’s how it often is (incorrectly) written and I absorbed it by osmosis, I think – because I do actually know how to spell flout. Sigh. The road to hell is paved with being all high-falutin’ about language!

  • naturallydotty

    Oh dear….

    • I think this is what they call payback for hubris! Part of the problem is that the error is usually that they have written ‘flaut’ instead of ‘flaunt’ *or* “flout’! Can I claim this one as a typo?? 😀

  • This blog is reproduced on another site, where someone has pointed out the correct spelling of ‘flout’. So I’m owning that, and will never make this error again.

  • naturallydotty

    I’m glad I haven’t seen “Changing tact”. I think it might lead me to murder. “Should of” is one of the errors that really aggravates me. Kate Burridge would tell us this is how language develops though, so we shouldn’t be too precious about it. I can’t help being precious about it for the reasons you have elucidated.

    I really want to do a course on etymology, it fascinates me so much.

    • I agree with Burridge about not being overly precious about language – it does change over time. Frankly, I enjoy the robust ways that word usage is changing on the internet – using adjectives as nouns for emphasis and the like. We use different levels of language for all sorts of purposes, from the formal to the informal, and the dynamics of it is part of the joy.

      I fear, however, that we are making our language *less* rich rather than more, by losing some of these basics. Again, if people who blog or write emails to stay in touch with family and friends make errors, I’m not overly bothered. The purpose of that communication is different. But when journalists and other professional writers don’t understand the language they are working with, that bothers me a great deal. The art of communication is knowing when and how to use precisely the right word to convey your precise meaning. If people don’t understand the language they are using, how can they be communicating as clearly as possible? Especially when they mix up ‘flout’ and ‘flaunt’ which don’t mean even *nearly* the same thing.

      Excuse me while I go away and do deep breathing exercises for a while…