Tentative and Tenterhooks

By Maeve Maddox

The other day I listened to a radio interview in which the subject continually pronounced the word tentative without one of its ts.

Tentative has three ts: ten-ta-tive (not ten-a-tive).

Another “t word” that often has its medial t messed with is tenterhook. It’s an old word derived from cloth-making, but it remains current in the expression “to be on tenterhooks,” i.e., to be in a state of painful suspense. I’ve heard people say “tenderhooks.”

Tentative derives from Latin tentatus, a form of the verb tentare, “to feel, to try.” It’s another form of temptare, “to feel, to try, to test.” which gives us the English word temptation.

A tenter was a wooden framework for stretching cloth. It derives from Latin tentus, “stretched.” A “tenter hook” held the cloth on the tenter.

Some will argue that these pronunciations are merely differences of region or dialect. Whatever the cause, pronouncing them that way leads to misspelling them and misspelled words damage the writer’s credibility.

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2 Responses to “Tentative and Tenterhooks”

  • Kristi Holl

    You’re so right about mispronunciation leading to misspellings. I have had students argue with me about “tenderhooks” being a word because “that’s how you say it.” Keep up the good work–I love when my pet peeves show up here!

  • Robert Palmar

    Tenters are long gone and so should tenterhooks.
    Few know the meaning of a tenter let alone a tenterhook.
    “To be on tenterhooks” invites misspelling and misunderstanding.
    The expression had its true impact in its day and that day is history.

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