Q&A: Tack vs tact

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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week we’re tactfully changing tack…

Q: Hello AWC. Can you help me with tact?

A: We can. In fact, we’ve often thought you needed to think more before you speak.

Q: Huh? No, I mean in relation to when I should be using “tact” and when to use “tack”.

A: Oh okay.

Q: A friend of mine says that if you decide to go in a different way, you “change tact” but I thought it was “change tack”. He says that boats simply “tack”.

A: Boats do simply tack. In fact, in sailing the word “tack” is used as a verb (“to tack around the marker buoy”) and as a noun (“that was a magnificent tack that the Australian sailors made”). However, your friend doesn’t have a leg to stand on regarding “change tact”.

Q: Actually, my friend has just one leg. That was rather lacking in tact.

A: Sorry about that. But you’re right; “tact” is the skill and sensitivity in dealing with difficult issues or people. It’s only ever a noun, but of course things can be done “tactfully” or someone can be “tactless”.

Q: Oh yes they can. Christmas lunch with the extended family is when the word “tactless” gets used the most. Uncle Rob just doesn’t have an off switch.

A: Indeed. Sounds like your Uncle Rob needs to learn to pull his head in.

Q: How tactless to suggest such a thing. Uncle Rob was born with no neck.

A: Oh, um, sorry.

Q: I think that’s why he lashes out at the world.

A: Right okay. So anyway, the word “tact” has been in our language since the 1600s and comes from the Latin “tactus” relating to touch.

Q: Like “tactile”?

A: Absolutely. That has everything to do with touch.

Q: And “tactical”?

A: Nope. Unrelated – it and “tactic” have Greek origins.

Q: Oh okay. So, let’s change tack for a moment.

A: Exactly. It IS “change tack” – switching courses or taking a different approach.

Q: Yet so many people think it’s “change tact”… Why?

A: They’re thinking “tact” is short for “tactic”. So if you’ve been trying something for an hour and it’s not working, you might try a different tactic – yet you take a different tack. It’s a very common mistake – one that your friend failed to spot.

Q: How dare you! My friend is sick right now and covered in spots. How utterly tactless.

A: Let’s change tack shall we?

Q: Okay, so it’s a fairly simple rule.

A: That’s right. “Tact” only ever relates to sensitivity in a tricky situation. “Tack” is everything else!

Q: I’m really glad we got out of this one inTACT.

A: You’re hilarious.

Q: We should keep in conTACT.

A: Again, very funny.

Q: No one can accuse grammar of being tacky.

A: We’re just going to show ourselves out now….

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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