Tack and Tact

Commonly Confused Words

tack and tact
Two thumbtacks (or drawing pins). (John W. Banagan/Getty Images)

The words tack and tact sound similar, but their meanings are not the same.

Definitions

The verb tack means to attach, add, or change course. As a noun, tack refers to a small nail, the direction of a ship, or a course of action.

The noun tact means diplomacy or skill in dealing with others.

Examples

  • "She found a hammer in the utility closet and tried to tack the poster back up, but it was too torn. She threw it in the bin, cursing herself."
    (Richard Powers, The Echo Maker. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007)
     
  • The commuter rails plan to tack on a $15 fee for ticket refunds, a sum that in most cases would be larger than the refund itself.
     
  • "Without consulting the menu, Irving said he would have oysters and steak au poivre, medium rare. He was squirming like a man with a tack in his shoe."
    (Anna Quindlen, Rise and Shine. Random House, 2006)
  • "Building homes close to food sources isn't new. Back before refrigerated trucks and sophisticated delivery systems, it was the norm. But modern housing design took a different tack as suburbs sprouted around cities."
    (Associated Press, "Agrihoods Take Root." The New York Times, May 17, 2016) 
  • "Tact is the ability to describe others as they see themselves."
    (Often attributed, without evidence, to Abraham Lincoln)
     
  • "In 1940, W.E.B. Du Bois rose to the podium and delivered the commencement address at Wilberforce University, where 46 years earlier he had assumed his first academic post. Du Bois, never known for his tact, announced himself to his audience as an 'open and frank' critic of Wilberforce and, true to his word, then launched into an address that surely scorched his audience's ears."
    (Jonathon S. Kahn, Divine Discontent. Oxford University Press, 2009)
     

    Idiom Alert

    The expression sharp as a tack means very perceptive, quick witted, or intelligent.
    "Make a list of any items you’ve lost recently, or even months, or years ago. Think back to where and when you lost the item. Mentally, you’re as sharp as a tack; with a mind so clear you’re able to recalls details you had long forgotten."
    (Larry Schwimmer, "Hurray!

    Mercury Retrograde Is Over." Huffington Post, May 23, 2016)
     

    Practice

    (a) _____ is the art of making a point without making an enemy.

    (b) "When your listener shakes her head or frowns in response to a point, try a different _____, perhaps drawing on an anecdote or affirming your listener's response."
    (Ronald J. Waicukauski, et al., The Winning Argument. American Bar Association, 2001)

    Answers to Practice Exercises

    Glossary of Usage: Index of Commonly Confused Words

    Answers to Practice Exercises: Tack and Tact

    (a) "Tact is the art of making a point without making an enemy." (Isaac Newton)

    (b) "When your listener shakes her head or frowns in response to a point, try a different tack, perhaps drawing on an anecdote or affirming your listener's response."
    (Ronald J. Waicukauski, et al., The Winning Argument. American Bar Association, 2001)

    Glossary of Usage: Index of Commonly Confused Words