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Tack vs. tact

Tact is sensitivity in social situations. A tack is a course or an approach (the word has nautical origins). When switching courses or taking a different approach, one changes tack, not tact.

Tact often appears in place of tack. Presumably some people think of it as short for tactic, which is synonymous with tack in some contexts. This is understandable given how rare tack is, but tact is not conventionally short for tactic, and, fairly or not, phrases like change tact are generally considered wrong by people who pay attention to these things.

Examples

The use of tact in place of tack is very common. These are just a few examples out of the many readily available:

Crouch’s fine team goal against AC Milan is testimony to Spurs’ ability to change tact and adopt a more subtle sit. [Sky Sports]

But two companies early on in this proxy season plan to take a different tact. [Fortune]

Fellow Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota took a similar tact as she spoke at the rally. [CNN]


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These writers use tack correctly:

He first tried to close loss-making Italian car plants, but changed tack when he saw the backlash that followed. [CTV]

This assertiveness marks a different tack from the way Manila has curried favor with Beijing until now. [Wall Street Journal]

And for good measure, here are two examples of tact used well:

But officers have been ordered to apply the legislation with tact and diplomacy so as not inflame tensions. [Telegraph]

Remember, duck-voiced people with no tact regarding humanitarian crises need not apply. [AV Club]

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Comments

  1. In your first set of examples (within the first grey box), you don’t directly state that the use of the word “tact” therein is incorrect. Was this intentional? I ask because I would love to send this link to someone who insists that “take a different tact” is correct and I would love to prove him wrong once and for all! Many thanks for an otherwise excellent post.

    • I’m pretty sure they meant people often make that substitution and that it is wrong, seeing as they stated above the two words are not interchangeable.

  2. Phil Wollerman says:

    When the article alludes to the “nautical origins” of “Tack”, I can clarify;

    A yacht cannot sail directly into the wind, therefore they take a zig-zag course, calling “tacking”. Each leg of that course is called a tack. With the wind behind such a course is called reaching by the way.

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