Taking a Different Tack

On our honeymoon my wife and I stayed at a resort that had Sunfish® sailboats available for guest use, so we decided to try sailing. (Actually I must have had to convince my new bride to try sailing. I had nearly drowned her once while we were still dating when our canoe capsized in rapids on the upper Delaware River.) We set off from the beach into a long, narrow inlet. With the breeze at our backs we reached the other end of the inlet in a few minutes.

sunfish sailboat
A Sunfish® sailboat. Source: Oliver McCloud from New York City, USA [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.
Returning to the resort took much longer. With the breeze blowing into our faces we had to zigzag back and forth across the narrow inlet to move in the direction of the resort. We tipped over several times en route, but eventually we made it back to the safety of the beach. We survived; our marriage survived; and we’ve spent many hours on the water since then in canoes, kayaks, and rowboats, but never again in a small sailboat.

The process of turning a sailing vessel so that it can sail against the wind is known as tacking. According to Merriam-Webster, the use of the word “tack” in that sense began in the early seventeenth century. The figurative use of the verb “tack” to mean change direction, or of the noun “tack” to mean a change in direction, began in the late seventeenth century.

Listening to a weekly interview show recently I heard the person being interviewed use the phrase “take a different tact.” No doubt most listeners would understand what he meant—to change direction—and even listeners who know that the word he should have used is “tack” would not not think ill of the speaker for using an incorrect word.

Editors notice such things, however, and we know that subtle errors such as that can mean the difference between good writing and excellent writing. If you want your writing to be excellent, hire a professional editor.

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