Time for a tract?

Just a little post about a wrong word choice that seems ever more omnipresent in journalism–and it may be one where the reporters and editors (and proofreaders, if newspapers still have such functions) are more at fault than the people being quoted.

Track housing.

I suppose there might be such a thing as track housing:

  • Housing built adjacent to a track, just as there’s golf-course housing.
  • A house with a track around it? Or a house that has a track inside it?
  • Perhaps a house in which runners change clothes before going out to the track?

But I’m guessing that, oh, 99.99% of the time “track house” or “track housing” appears in print, what’s meant is…

Tract housing

Here’s Merriam-Webster’s definition of “tract house”:

Any of many similarly designed houses built on a tract of land.

You know: Shady Acres, Magnolia Pines, all those named (and nameless) developments where the houses either look alike or can be recognized as permutations of the same two or three floor plans. The developer purchases a tract of land–“a defined area of land” (boy, there’s a thrilling definition)–and builds tract houses on it. (At one extreme, cue Malvina Reynolds’ love song for Daly City: “Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky-tacky…and they all look just the same.” And yes, I love Tom Lehrer’s line, as quoted in a pretty good Wikipedia entry on the song, that it’s “the most sanctimonious song ever written.”)

Is this so difficult?

I suppose it is if a reporter (or editor) has no idea what a tract of land is and somehow thinks that “houses built along the same tracks” (I’m stretching here) may be “track housing.”

Mostly, though, I suspect it’s just plain ignorance.

I should note that I don’t deride tract housing. Our neighborhood in Mountain View consisted primarily of minor variations on two or three house designs (so, for example, before they remodeled it, our next-door neighbor’s house was an exact mirror image of ours). They were and are good houses; we liked our house a lot.

Followup, later that day, which most folks may not see: Steve Lawson commented (on FriendFeed) that he gets a lot of “tact” for “tack” at his place of work. That’s another one–rarely the reverse (“he showed a distinct lack of tack”) but way, way too often the misuse of “tact” when “tack” is meant, primarily “time to take a different tact” or the like.

As I noted there, if you really wanted to reach, you could suggest that people think of “tact” as short for “tactic”–but that’s reaching way too far. More likely people know nothing about sailing and have never really heard of “tack” except as a kind of pin or nail with a broad head, and they know that’s not what they mean.

If you’ve seen a sailing vessel tack (or “take a different tack”)–turning into the wind–it’s quite a lovely sight.

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