Tail and Tale

Commonly Confused Words

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A birthday card (from the early 1930s) punning on the words tail and tale. (Donaldson Collection/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

The words tail and tale are homophones: they sound the same but have different meanings. Both a noun and a verb, tail has several meanings, including the rear part of an animal or vehicle. The noun tale refers to a report or story.

Examples:

  • "A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way."
    (Mark Twain)
  • "I used small words and short sentences as if I were telling a fairy tale to a child."
    (Maya Angelou, The Heart of a Woman. Random House, 1981)
  • "'Memphis' is a sad story of long-distance love, with an unexpected twist at the tail end of the tale."
    (Fred Rothwell, Long Distance Information: Chuck Berry's Recorded Legacy. Music Mentor Books, 2001)

Practice:

(a)  "Kevin told a wonderful _____ about an angel who falls in love with a girl and then becomes human so that he can be with her."
(Christopher Pike, The Midnight Club, 1991)

(b) A dog wags its _____ with its heart.

Answers

(a)  "Kevin told a wonderful tale about an angel who falls in love with a girl and then becomes human so that he can be with her."
(Christopher Pike, The Midnight Club, 1991)

(b) A dog wags its tail with its heart.

See also:

Glossary of Usage: Index of Commonly Confused Words

 "A Misspelled Tail," by Elizabeth T. Corbett

200 Homonyms, Homophones, and Homographs