The Grammarphobia Blog

Tacks time

Q: A recent advertising column in the New York Times said an ad campaign for a menswear retailer “aims for a lighter, even humorous tack.” Isn’t “tack” what you do on a sailboat? Maybe the columnist meant “tact.” Am I wrong or is the NY Times?

A: In that May 27, 2010, advertising column, the Times writer was using sailing terminology figuratively – that is, in an imaginative or metaphorical way.

However, the columnist used awkward phrasing. You don’t usually “aim” for a “tack” when the term is used figuratively – you “take” one.

So the Times writer should have said “the campaign takes a lighter, even humorous tack.”

One definition of the noun “tack” in the Oxford English Dictionary is “the direction given to a ship’s course by tacking.”

And when you “tack,” according to the OED, you “turn the ship’s head to the wind, so that she shall sail at the same angle to the wind on the other side.”

To “tack,” we’re informed, can also mean to “proceed by a series of such courses.”

And since the 17th century, the OED says, the noun “tack” has been used figuratively to mean “a course or line of conduct or action; implying change or difference from some preceding or other course.”

In other words, landlubbers can use “tacking” to mean something like zigzagging or changing course.

In the Times column that caught your attention, the writer was describing how the men’s clothing company had changed course in its advertising – from an earnest, straightforward ad campaign to a humorous one.

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