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Spelling Malpractice: Of Vocal "Chords" and Digestive "Tracks"

At a recent concert in Milwaukee, John Mayer dedicated a song to his girlfriend, Katy Perry, for helping him get through some tough times. "Mayer also publicly thanked Perry for helping him deal with vocal chord problems that left him unable to sing for about 20 months," UPI reported.

Farther north, Minnesota is trying to determine why the moose population is declining by tracking many of them. "Researchers also placed a second electronic device in the digestive tracks of about 30 of the collared moose that records the animals’ heartbeat and body temperature," the St. Cloud Times reported.

The two italicized terms, "vocal chords" and "digestive track," are both logical, both frequently seen, and both incorrectly spelled (for now).

The parts in your throat that vibrate and allow sound to emerge also allow you (and John Mayer and Katy Perry) to sing. Singing is music. Music comes in "chords," or collections of notes. So you’d think those parts in your throat should be "vocal chords."

But those parts are also ropelike structures. Many body parts have fanciful names (Adam’s apple, Achilles tendon) or keep to Greek or Latin (medulla oblongata, phalanges), but some are simply descriptive. In this case, cords that allow vocalization are just that: "vocal cords," though they’re also known as "vocal folds." Strictly speaking, a human voice can produce only one tone at a time, so "vocal chord" really doesn’t fit anyway.

That doesn’t stop it from fitting into many people’s writing. In 2007, Ben Zimmer wrote on the Oxford University Press blog that "we find contemporary writers opting for vocal chords instead of vocal cords 49% of the time."Garner’s Modern American Usage lists "vocal chord" instead of "vocal cord" at Stage 2 of the five-stage Language-Change Index, meaning it’s still a capital offense.

If you use a British English dictionary, though, you may use either "cord" or "chord" without penalty from the Empire.

The same arguments apply to "spinal c(h)ord" and "umbilical c(h)ord, by the way, which get similar (mis)treatment.

Now on to "digestive track." Food goes in one place, and follows a specific route until it is absorbed or emerges. That sure sounds like a "track." But the more acceptable spelling is "tract." Hmm, I hear some of you say, "tract" is used to describe a plot of real estate (a "tract of land"). And others will associate "tract" with a pamphlet espousing a cause, as in a "religious tract." But "tract" is also a bundle of organs working toward a common goal, as your esophagus, stomach, intestines, etc., do.

Garner’s says "track" is more often misused for "tract" in the real estate sense than it is in the digestive sense. Both misuses are also at Stage 2 of the Language-Change Index.

You might say that the digestive misuse is more alimentary. (You knew that was coming!)

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Merrill Perlman is adjunct assistant professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and president of Merrill Perlman Consulting, offering consulting and freelance editing services and training in journalism, grammar and usage. Among her clients are The New York Times, ProPublica and the Poynter Institute. She writes the "Language Corner" column and blog for Columbia Journalism Review. Merrill retired in June 2008 after 25 years at The New York Times, most recently as director of copy desks with responsibility for managing 150 copy editors. Click here to read more articles by Merrill Perlman.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday September 26th 2013, 6:52 AM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)
Suddenly I wonder about those specially trained Tibetan monks who can produce more than one note at a time. I imagine what they are doing is producing the overtone of one note with one cord and the tonic with another. Perhaps the one is the octave (that would be easiest), but more interesting-sounding would be the fifth above octave, which approaches a real vocal 'chord'. I've heard such doubles being referred to as an open chord. Unfortunately, I've never heard them, and when chanting in company I'm not sure I could tell. But that might be a real vocal chord, whether described in the U.K. or U.S.

I think their digestive tracts are ordinary, though.
Thursday September 26th 2013, 7:27 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Yes. Indeed!
My wife always says, "K-Mark" which bugs the heck out of me! -- the Language Police.
Thursday September 26th 2013, 8:29 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
You've honed in on some important distinctions!
Thursday September 26th 2013, 9:35 AM
Comment by: LEE (New York, NY)
Thank You. I find when people misuse or mispronounce words I stop listening. I don't mean to, but it annoys me so much I stop listening by default.
Thursday September 26th 2013, 11:02 AM
Comment by: William H. (Severn, MD)
Some of these mistakes may be the result of using computer programs that convert speech to words (Nuance's "Dragon" for example) where the slight difference in the sounds of "track" and "tract" might be an issue. There is no question, however, that writing "chord" instead of "cord" and similar errors are just more signs of the lamentable death of American English.
Thursday September 26th 2013, 12:49 PM
Comment by: Nancy M. (Little River,, CA)
My fave these days is "Duck Tape."
Thursday September 26th 2013, 1:47 PM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
Nancy M: "Duck tape" is actually the original term, dating back to World War II, when soldiers noticed that water rolled off the new adhesive tape "like water off a duck's back." (See this Mental Floss article). "Duct tape" came later.

In addition, Duck is a brand of duct tape; the packages say "Ducktape" (one word).
Thursday September 26th 2013, 2:08 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Nancy F.: It's a bit more complicated than that, since the original "duck tape" wasn't what we now call "duct tape." Jan Freeman dug into this a few years ago in the Boston Globe.

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