• 3-minute read
  • 3rd December 2020

Word Choice: Tail vs. Tale

“Tail” and “tale” sound the same, but these words mean different things. In this post, then, we’ll look at how to use them correctly in your writing.

Tail (A Rear Appendage or the Act of Following)

“Tail” has two main meanings. Most commonly, it is a noun that refers to part of an animal that sticks out at the back:

That dog has quite a long tail.

The scorpion has a sting in its tail.

The bird’s tail feathers were colorful.

It can also refer to something that resembles the “tail” of an animal:

I could just make out the comet’s tail.

Another common use is as a verb meaning “follow someone closely.” Or it can be a noun that refers to the person(s) following something:

Verb: He asked the private detective to tail his wife.

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Noun: They lost their tail after taking several turns.

In addition, you might hear people mention the “tails” side of a coin. This is because many coins feature a head design on one side, and the opposite of a “head” is a “tail” (i.e., the bit at the other end of an animal with a tail). As such, people often ask “Heads or tails?” when flipping a coin.

A male peacock's tail feathers.
A male peacock’s tail feathers.

Tale (A Story)

The noun “tale” only has one meaning, which is to refer to a story:

When I was young, I loved fairy tales.

Often, the word “tale” also suggests that something is unbelievable or invented. A “tall tale,” for instance, is a story presented as real but that contains exaggerations or fictional elements that make it hard to believe.

Summary: Tail or Tale?

These two words may sound identical, but they have different meanings:

  • Tail (noun) usually refers to the rear appendage of an animal such as a cat or a dog, or something that resembles a tail (e.g., the “tail” of a comet).
  • Tail (verb) means “follow someone closely.”
  • Tale (noun) refers to a story, often one that is fictional or hard to believe.

If you find these words difficult to tell apart, focus on “tale” meaning “story.” Since this word only has one use, you can assume the spelling “tail” will be correct in other situations. And if you’d like more help with your spelling or vocabulary, why not try our proofreading service for free today?

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