June 5, 2008
Weekly Language Usage tips: Track or tract, the medium is the message
Tip 1: Track and tract
The idea for the first tip comes from David Barnard who writes:
Re “taut” and “taunt”:
I’ve never heard that misuse before but it reminds me of another one that drives me crazy: “tract” instead of “track” to refer to a concentration within a curriculum, or to someone’s tenure stream status. For example, I cringe when I hear that someone is on the tenure “tract” when he or she is actually on the tenure track. Similarly, I hate it when people say they are in the clinical trials “tract” instead of the clinical trials track in the CRTP.
This makes me crazy, too, and I see it all the time. I’m not going to single anyone out but you know who you are, don’t you? Tract has a number of meanings—an expanse of land or water, a system of organs and tissues (e.g., the digestive tract), a treatise or leaflet usually related to politics or religion, a stretch of time—but none of them are even remotely related to track which has even more meanings, including: a pair of parallel rails on which a train or trolley runs; a mark indicating that something has passed; footprints; a course or path; a series of events or ideas; a running course; a band of recorded sound; and (this was definition 20 out of 35 definitions in dictionary.com) in education, a study program or level of curriculum to which a student is assigned on the basis of aptitude or need; an academic course or path. When talking about the tenure track and the clinical trials track, it is this 20th definition of track we are using—an academic course or path.
Tip 2: The medium is the message (with apologies to Marshall McLuhan)
The second tip is the brainchild of Alan Meisel who writes:
Debbie – could you dialogue people about the singular and plural forms of nouns derived from Greek ending in ion – e.g., criterion — namely, that the ion form is singular and that the plural is formed by changing the on to an a. The most common problem is that people think that the plural is the singular — so they say “One criteria for health care reform is . . .”
What he said.
Okay, there are a number of words derived from the Greek or Latin languages that become plurals by changing the “on” to “a” (Greek) or the “um” to “a” (Latin). These are called irregular plurals, and in these particular irregular plurals the “on” or “um” words are always singular, and the “a” words are always plural. Here are some examples (courtesy of Wikipedia):
datum data (I’m sticking to my guns here.)
medium media (although when talking about people who can communicate with the dead, the plural is mediums)
candelabrum candelabra (I’m guilty of using candelabra as singular—no more.)
Does anyone know where the expression “I’m sticking to my guns” originated? I tried to find it but with no success.
And if you don’t know who Marshall McLuhan was or what the “medium is the message” means, you should. There is a nice essay, here: http://individual.utoronto.ca/markfederman/article_mediumisthemessage.htm
BUT, note that the author used the word “effect” when he should have used “affect.” When will we ever learn?