Tacking Tactfully

Today’s post comes via my friend and sailing enthusiast, Bill. Bill recently encountered someone saying that a person “tried a different tact” when they really meant “tack.”

Let’s first review what a tack is and why you might take a different one.

“Tacking” is a sailing term.


We’ll break sailing down to its most basic premise: when the wind is behind you, it pushes your boat forward. If it’s in front of you, it will stop you dead in your tracks (and if you don’t roll up your sails, it can actually blow you backwards!).

Sailing 2

But what if you don’t want to go straight-ahead? What if your destination is actually diagonal to you? Well, if you’re in a square-rigged or fixed-sail boat (a Viking ship is a common example), then things get messy and I’m way out of my depth (nautical pun intended) to explain it.


Click the picture for a link to a brief run-down of how a sailboat works.

But most modern sail boats have at least one sail affixed to a free-swinging arm (known properly as a “boom”) and this can be angled so that it can catch and harness at least some of the power of the wind to blow the boat in the correct direction.

But, if the wind is coming straight at you, then there’s nothing to do but tack.

Tacking basically means to sail a zig-zag pattern. You sail at a diagonal for a little ways, then turn your sails to the other side and go on the opposite diagonal. In this way, you make–rather laboriously–forward progress (all the time hoping the wind will shift direction so you can catch it without having to swing the sails around constantly).


So, to “take a different tack” means to change the direction you’re sailing. (Who says video games can’t teach you anything; I learned all about tacking while sailing my pirate ship in Sid Meier’s Pirates!)

In English, when it’s used as a metaphor, it’s usually applied to arguing. For example, in a scene that I deleted from my second Acceptance book, Kalyn has an argument with her school’s therapist. When the therapist sees that Kalyn is not swayed by his argument, he tries a different tack. He’s trying to take her (i.e. his sailboat) to a destination (i.e. his conclusion), but when his first argument doesn’t convince her that he’s right, he tries a different argument (i.e. changes tack) to get her to the same destination (conclusion).

In sailing, you tack or are tacking. It’s a verb.

Metaphorically, you “try a different tack” or “change tacks.” Here, the word is a noun. (You can also “change tacks” in sailing parlance, but most of the times the word is used as a verb.)

This is word is not to be confused with horse equipment. A saddle, bridle, etc. is called “tack.” When you put it on a horse, the word is always followed by “up.” E.g. “Tack up my horse” or “I was tacking my horse up when he kicked me.”

DieAnd, as William pointed out, “tack” should also not be confused with “tact.” “Tact” is delicacy or sensitivity in social or political situations. Example: A rather Rubenesque woman puts on a hot-pink dress with black horizontal stripes and then asks her husband how it looks. He uses tact when he says, “I think I prefer your black dress. That’s my favorite and you look very good in it.” He is not being tactful if he comes right out and says, “That dress makes you look like the bastard offspring of a bumblebee and a walrus that’s had Pepto Bismol vomited onto it.”

And “tact” shouldn’t be confused with “tacit” which means “implied.”

If you fear getting “tack” and tact” confused, you can always alter your metaphor slightly and say that your character changed tactics. A tactic is a plan of an attack (or plan for winning some contest), so it’s appropriate to use it when describing someone making an argument meant to win someone over.


May the fourth not be with you.

One comment on “Tacking Tactfully

  1. Excellent grammatical/word musings. And OH MY GOD how have I never heard of May the Fourth before??? I need to immediately re-plan my day tomorrow to capitalize on this awesome new holiday.

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