In a recent email, an acquaintance let me know that a piece of news had taken so-and-so "a back."
I consider that an "a front" to the English language.
A lass, the writer was a miss. (Except he was male.)
A common problem these days is that people write what they think they've heard without checking a reliable source—let's say, oh, I don't know, maybe a dictionary—to verify or correct their verbal suppositions.
So, rather than dear old so-and-so's being taken "a back," he was taken aback. My own assessment was that the hashing of the word was an affront to my mother tongue, not an "a front" (which doesn't work grammatically, of course, but I'm having some fun here—as I hope you are).
The sentence in the third paragraph ("A lass, the writer was a miss.") would be just fine, if the writer in question were a young, unmarried female. (I know that Ms. is the appropriate honorific; again, I'm making a larger point.) In that sentence, the appositive could certainly be considered a positive.
To convey the proper meaning, though, the sentence should have been written this way: Alas, the writer was amiss. Translation: What a shame, the author botched it.
There used to be a joke—not an especially funny one, granted, but I offer it anyway: "Be alert; the world needs more lerts." It doesn't really work when written out, but it does when said aloud—or is that "a loud"? No, that's not allowed.
Alack, there isn't a lack of single words that are misheard as two.
Here's a favorite: intact—meaning untouched, still whole. I have seen instead (or, if you like, in its stead): "I left your writing in tact." Better to leave the word "intact" intact.
As far as the word "tact" goes, it has to do with sensitivity or diplomacy in handling a difficult issue: "You showed a great deal of tact in telling Gunther that his fly was open during his presentation to the Board of Directors. You did your best to leave his dignity intact."
Now, when you try a different approach to something, you take a different tack. That refers to the course of a sailboat relative to the position of its sails. Shifting those sails is called "tacking." The likely reason that "tact" gets used when "tack" is meant is its likeness to "tactic." You certainly could try a different tactic with Gunther, but let's face it, he's hopeless.
By the way, if you do go sailing, and you come under attack while you attempt a tack, you might want to keep a float handy, so you can stay afloat, should you get knocked overboard. Such a fall might affright you—that is, give you a fright.
If someone wonders about your being hired by a law office, you might affirm that you're joining a firm.
One other thing that's somewhat afield (not a field) of this discussion, but which bears mentioning is the misheard contraction would've for "would have" (could've, should've, might've, etc.). People write "would of." No, I'm serious; they really do.
You have my permission, each time someone does so, to sound a bell and make that person atone
Rob Reinalda is executive editor at Ragan Communication.