Professional Style

Tack vs. Tact

March 2010
Spot the Error

Unable to sway audience members with facts and figures, Jill took a different tact and played to the emotions of the audience with inspirational anecdotes.

The word tact is most commonly used to convey the idea of diplomacy. For example:

Dean showed absolutely no tact when he told his wife that her dress made her look like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.

It’s true that, in the “anecdote” sentence above, Jill may be using tact to maintain a good relationship with the audience, however, that’s not how the word is being used. The word is incorrectly being used to describe a course of action. In that instance, what’s needed is tack. Borrowed from sailing terminology, tack refers to the zigzag maneuver used by sailboats to travel against the wind. So, figuratively speaking, Jill is changing tack, or zigzagging as a ship would, in order to move forward.

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