TWTS: Keeping track of “track” and “tract” | Michigan Radio
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TWTS: Keeping track of “track” and “tract”

Mar 1, 2021

We keep track of things, we lose track of things, we run track, and listen to tracks. Sometimes though, we confuse “track” with “tract.”

Recently, a graduate student who works closely with Professor Anne Curzan pointed out a job posting for a “tenure tract” position.

Since “tenure track” is the standard spelling, this raised the question, how often are "track" and "tract" confused?

The confusion seems more often to go the other way, with “track” substituted for “tract.” For example, you’ll hear people say “digestive track” instead of “digestive tract.” Even people who know the correct spelling often leave the “t” off the end when they say "tract."

“Tract” is borrowed in from Latin with the meaning of dragging or pulling. Early uses relate to time as in “a long tract of time.” It later comes to refer to an expanse of land, or, in anatomy, the whole expanse of an organ or system of organs. In the U.S., “tract” came to refer to a plot of land.

In its history, “tract” picked up meanings like path and way, which made it synonymous with “track.” However, the Oxford English Dictionary says those meanings are now obsolete.

“Track” shows up in English in the 1400s and has always meant a sequence of marks left by the passage of something such as a wheel or footprints or a scent. We have plenty of phrases containing this word including racetrack, train tracks, soundtrack, dead in our tracks, etc.

At That’s What They Say, we have one-track minds when it comes to language. Use the form below to send us your questions or email us at language@michiganradio.org.