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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.