June 5, 2008

Weekly Language Usage tips: Track or tract, the medium is the message

Posted in medium/media, track or tract at 6:55 pm by dlseltzer

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):

automaton automata

criterion criteria

phenomenon phenomena

polyhedron polyhedra

addendum addenda

phenomenon phenomena

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)

memorandum memoranda

candelabrum candelabra (I’m guilty of using candelabra as singular—no more.)

consortium consortia

symposium symposia

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?



  1. dlseltzer said,

    Bernie wrote:

    From the web stie “Phrase a week”:http://www.phrases.org.uk/a-phrase-a-week/index.html
    Re: Stick/stand to your guns
    Posted by ESC on November 20, 2001

    In Reply to: Re: Sticking to his guns posted by R. Berg on November 20, 2001

    : : Does the phrase “he’s sticking to his guns” usually imply that the individual referred to has made a moral commitment, or simply that he is stubborn, has dug in his heels, and is possibly desperate? Thanks. -Patty

    : To my ear it has the former connotation. Gun-sticking is the work of heroes, not villains.

    I vote heroes. From the archives:

    STICK TO YOUR GUNS/STAND TO YOUR GUNS – It’s a military term. The “Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings” by Gregory Y. Titelman. (Random House, New York, 1996) states: “Stick to your guns – hold to your convictions and rights. The proverb has been traced back to the ‘Life of Samuel Johnson’ by James Bobswell (1740-95). It was first attested in the United States in ‘Seven Keys to Baldpate (1913) by Earl Derr Biggers (1884-1933).” From the “Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins” by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, New York, 1997): the term may be military in origin and lists a mention of the term “as late as 1839, in a popular novel called ‘Ten Thousand a Year’ the words put in the mouth of a civilian named Mr. Titmouse.”

  2. dlseltzer said,

    Donna wrote:

    Here’s what I found on the web by googling “stick to your guns, meaning”.

    Etymology: based on the military meaning of stick to your guns (= to continue shooting at an enemy although it puts you in great danger)

  3. dlseltzer said,

    Quansheng wrote:

    Regarding the origin of the idiom “I’m sticking to my guns”, I found the following:

    Etymology: based on the military meaning of stick to your guns (= to continue shooting at an enemy although it puts you in great danger)

    from this page: http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/stick+to+guns

  4. dlseltzer said,

    Matt wrote:

    I have a general question: When does a word from another language become English? At some point, a word must be considered part of the English (or “American”) language and thus follow the usual rules for the singular and plural forms. We all seem to be particularly caught up in this issue around Greek and Latin words but ignore other languages where these rules would be even more cumbersome. For example, that is the plural of Inca? Or is that the plural? Aztec? Karaoke? We need some uniformity here. And since no one is likely to be able to remember the rules for plural forms for the original language of every non-English word, I vote to be a uniformly disrespectful to all those languages and use English plural-form rules.

  5. dlseltzer said,

    Bernie wrote:

    Last evening, my daughter graduated from Woodland Hills High School. 3 students spoke. Sadly, the first 2 student presentations were filled with grammatical errors, and mis-spoken words. Both also gave poorly crafted, cookie-cutter graduation speeches. I thought of you, and what it says of our high school graduates. The final student, representing the National Honor Society, gave a thoughtful, unique, and interesting talk. I was relieved that at least some students apparently got an education during their years at Woody High…..

  6. dlseltzer said,

    Theresa wrote:

    Loved it–keep sending them. Also, tell Debbie the Post Gazette has trouble mixing up words too. Last week they send they had a caption of a picture saying people were going through the gantlet. What they meant was they were going through the gauntlet. I guess they used spell check and since gantlet is a word (though not the meaning they wanted) it went through. You know how this bugs me.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: