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.