CAUTION: Merging Words

By Maeve Maddox

The lines between some word pairs like suit and suite, motive and motif, are beginning to blur. Here are six such pairs that may be worth your attention.

1. suit/suite
As a noun, suit can be a suit of clothing or a legal action. Card players speak of the suits of hearts, spades, diamonds, and clubs. Older speakers may still inject a /y/ sound, /syut/, just as some speakers still pronounce duke as /dyuk/ and not /dook/, but most Americans probably pronounce suit as /soot/.

The word suite is pronounced /sweet/. This word refers to things that form a series or a group: a suite of rooms, a suite of furniture, a suite of software applications, a queen’s retinue. A collection of songs or melodies somehow related is called a suite.

2. tack/tact
The most common use of the noun tack /tak/ is to refer a small pointed fastener. As a verb, tack is the action of nailing or pressing a tack into place. Tack has other, specialized meanings for sailors, seamstresses, and equestrians.

Tact /takt/ is a noun meaning diplomacy on a personal level. Derived from the Latin word for “touch, ” tact is a sensitive, gentle touch in dealing with people. For example–excepting teachers at work and parents bringing up children–the tactful person does not attempt to correct the pronunciation or grammar of others.

3. tract/track
Track /trak/ as a noun can mean a path, or traces of the passage of an animal, person, or vehicle. We speak of race tracks and running tracks.

Tract /trakt/ has two common meanings: 1. a portion of land, 2. a type of religious writing. Ex. The Wilsons have bought a tract in the new housing development. Rev. Abercrombie has written a tract on the subject of Original Sin.

4. tenant/tenet
A tenant /ten ent/ is one who rents from a landlord. Ex. Jones requires three references from all his tenants.

A tenet /ten et/ is an article of belief. Ex. A tenet of that man’s religion is that women were created to serve men.

5. wet/whet
Wet /wet/ as an adjective is the opposite of dry. As a verb, wet means to moisten, to make wet.

Whet /whet/ is a verb meaning to sharpen. One whets a knife against a whetstone in order to sharpen the edge. Figuratively we can say that the aroma of baking bread whets our appetite.

NOTE: Many American speakers of English make no distinction between the phonograms /w/ and /wh/. The /wh/ sound has an aspirate quality, as if one were blowing out a candle. The sound is represented by the spelling wh in words like whale, when, whip, why, and whoa.

6. motive/motif
The days of motif /mO teef/ may be numbered. I heard a musician on NPR talking about the “blood motive” in an opera. According to Webster’s fourth definition of “motive,” her usage is permissible. Personally, I think the distinction between motive and motif is a useful one.

motive /mO tiv/: something within a person that incites him to action. Ex. Few critics can agree as to Raskolnikov’s motive in killing the pawnbroker.

motif /mO ‘teef/: a dominant idea, element, or central theme in a work of art. For example, one of the musical motifs in Bizet’s Carmen is an ominous melody that occurs during the fortune-telling scene and again when Carmen and Don Jose meet outside the bull ring. Novelists frequently employ the journey or quest as a literary motif.

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2 Responses to “CAUTION: Merging Words”

  • Cory

    thanks! I think I am going to start putting the Y back in suit.

  • Massaeli

    Could you help me with pronunciation of the merged words like

    would you = woodi ya

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