English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

When “tract” is off track

Q: Several educated people I know use “tract” when they mean “track,” as in “The political science tract is one path to law school.” My desultory search of reference works finds nothing on this usage. Do you condone it?

A: No, “tract” and “track” are not synonyms. They mean different things and are not interchangeable.

As a general rule, the word for an extent or expanse of something (like a plot of land), or for a system of organs, is “tract.” The word for a trail, path, line, or course (academic or otherwise) is “track.”

However, people quite often confuse these words.

Sometimes they mistakenly use “track” in place of “tract,” as in this citation from Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage: “SCAAP skirted those obstacles by buying tracks of undeveloped land.”

Or this Fox News headline from 2014: “Have digestive problems? Tips, tricks to get your digestive track in check.”

In both cases, the correct word is “tract,” meaning an area of land in the first example and a bodily system in the second.

Less often, people use “tract” where “track” is called for, as in this example from Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.): “to help you keep tract [read track] of where you are in the filing system.”

Or on the academic websites that offer “advance tract” or “college pre-med tract” or “pre-law tract” programs.

In those cases the correct word is “track.” In the Garner’s example, to “keep track of” means to mentally follow the course of something. In the school examples, it means a course of study.

Despite their similar sounds, “tract” and “track” come from different sources, “tract” from Latin and “track” from Germanic.

But as we’ll explain, both of these words, first recorded in English in the 15th century, ultimately have to do with pulling, dragging, or drawing out. So over the centuries they’ve occasionally overlapped.

We’ll start with the more limited word, “tract.”

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, it comes from the noun tractus, which in Latin means “a drawing, dragging, pulling, trailing,” derived from the verb trahĕre (to draw, drag).

The more distant ancestor is a prehistoric Indo-European root reconstructed as tragh– (pull, move, run), which is a “rhyming variant” of dhragh– (drag), according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

The first example in writing is far off the beaten path. In 1486, it appeared as an obscure term in heraldry for a longitudinal division of a field within a coat of arms.

The OED’s earliest example is from a Middle English work, The Book of St. Albans, which has a passage devoted to the subject: “Off tractys in armys” (“Of tracts in arms”). This sense of “tract” is now obsolete.

The principal meanings of “tract” all have to do with the extent or duration of something, senses that began showing up around 1500 in relation to time.

These senses of the word, and the dates when they first appeared, include a time delay or deferral (1503-04); a period of time, as in a “longe tracte of tyme” (sometime before 1513); a stretch of territory or an expanse of space, air, water, etc. (1533); an anatomical structure, usually extending lengthwise, in a plant or animal, such as the “alimentary tract” (1681); a bounded parcel of land, especially one slated for development (1912).

The OED notes, though, that over the years “tract” was sometimes used in the senses of “track” and “trace,” but later on, the words diverged again.

For instance, during the 16th to 19th centuries “tract” was sometimes used to mean a path, route, or course of action. This usage is now rare or obsolete, the OED says, and the meaning is “usually expressed by track.”

And during the same period “tract” was sometimes used to mean a mark left behind, like a footprint or trail. This usage, too, is now rare or obsolete, and Oxford says the usual word is “trace.”

Another, unrelated meaning of “tract” should be mentioned here. The noun for a piece of writing, as in a book or pamphlet, showed up in the 1400s, an apparent abbreviation of tractātus, a Latin noun meaning “a handling, treatment, discussion, treatise,” the OED says.

The dictionary’s earliest examples, “tractes of God” and “a generalle tracte,” are from 15th-century documents that are perhaps as early as 1425 or as late as 1475.

When “track” entered English in the 1400s, it meant pretty much what it means today, if you add in the later figurative uses.

This is the OED’s earliest definition: “The mark, or series of marks, left by the passage of anything; a trail; a wheel-rut; the wake of a ship; a series of footprints; the scent followed by hounds.”

The dictionary’s first written example is dated 1470-85: “Myght I fynde the trak of his hors I shold not fayle to fynde that Knyghte” (from Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur).

Unlike “tract,” as we mentioned earlier, the noun “track” did not come from Latin, according to etymologists.

“Track” entered English through Old French (trac), but language scholars generally think the French borrowed it from Germanic sources, the OED explains.

The dictionary says that it may have entered French by way of the Middle Low German and Middle Dutch noun trek (a pull or a haul). In both Germanic languages, the verb trekken means to draw, pull, tug, drag, or haul.

How did an English word derived from Germanic sources for dragging and pulling come to mean a trail?

The OED explains that “the original sense would appear to have been the line or mark made on the ground by anything hauled or dragged, whence also the mark made or path beaten by the feet of man or beast.”

Though etymologists don’t link “track” to ancient Indo-European, it seems likely that the Germanic trekken has prehistoric origins that would connect it to “tract.” But the evidence, if it exists, apparently hasn’t been found.

Some later senses of the word, and the dates when they were first recorded in writing, include a route of travel (1576); a course of action or conduct (1638); a path or rough road (1643); a railway line (1806); a race course (1836); a branch of athletics (1905); a set of grooves on a record album, hence a recorded piece of music (1904); an educational stream (1959).

The word has given us many catchphrases and figurative expressions, including to shoot someone “dead in his tracks” (1824); to “make tracks” (1835-40); to be on a “false track” (1871); “covering up his tracks” (1878); “to keep track of” (1873); “on the right track” (1886); “on a wrong track” (1889); “one loses all track of” (1894); “kept close track of” (1902); “from the wrong side of the railroad tracks” (1945, later with “railroad” omitted); “made me stop dead in my tracks” (1954); “keep us on track” (1978).

With that, we’ll stop in our tracks.

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