Q&A: Tack vs tact

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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