Do You Know the Difference Between Tenant and Tenet?
by Owen Fourie
Two words that are similar in sound can cause some confusion.
This can happen when a word is poorly pronounced and mistaken for another of similar sound.
It can happen when, despite a speaker’s clear enunciation, the hearer, who is not familiar with a particular word, mistakes it for another. This might affect the same hearer’s writing at some point where the wrong word is used in ignorance.
This is certainly the case with the words tenet and tenant.
I saw this incorrect usage in print a few years ago, and I have seen it several times since then.
These words are actually related because they stem from the same Latin root–tenere, which means “to hold”.
Let’s be clear about these two words, and let’s use them correctly.
A tenant is someone who holds or occupies land or a building or other property owned by someone else.
If you live in a house that you do not own, and you pay rent to a landlord, you are a tenant.
If you hold to a particular belief, a doctrine, a dogma, a principle, a teaching in religion or politics or philosophy, you are subscribing to the tenets of that faith or party or way of thinking.
These tenets are held by the group. To be a member in good standing, you are expected to hold to its particular teaching.
Tenet was once tenent
If you had lived in the 1500s, you would have used the older form of this word, tenent. In the earlier part of the following century, tenet superseded the earlier form.
Examples of incorrect and correct usage
Students who invest in good dictionaries and who learn to use them constantly to be sure that they are using words correctly are unlikely to write this:
The tenet whose rental payment is overdue always quotes the tenants of his philosophy to justify his late payments.
Instead, they would write this:
The tenant whose rental payment is overdue always quotes the tenets of his philosophy to justify his late payments.
As far as I can tell, the error is made with the use of the word tenet since the word tenant is a familiar term. The word tenet, which is not as well known, is where the mistake is made when it is rendered as tenant.
How familiar are you with the confusion of tenant, and tenet? Are there other points like this for which you would like some clarification? Your comments, observations, and questions are welcome.
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