Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: tenterhooks

tenterhooks. A tenter is a frame for stretching cloth to dry, and tenterhooks are the hooks or nails placed in the tenter to hold the cloth. The set phrase “on tenterhooks,” then, refers to being stretched, therefore strained and nervous. Because the unfamiliar word “tenterhook” is rarely seen outside that phrase, it is prone to being misspelled *"tenderhook," perhaps under the influence of “tenderfoot” or “tinderbox” — e.g.: o “They did see the smoke from the huge Sioux and Cheyenne encampment, and were on tenderhooks [read ‘tenterhooks’] until Custer’s scout, Curley, arrived on the morning of the 27th bearing confirmation of their fears.” Frederic Smith, “Civilian Grant Marsh Played Major Role in Bighorn Story,” Bismarck Trib., 25 June 2001, at A1. o “Nittoli said she was put on tenderhooks [read ‘tenterhooks’] in July, when she decided to leave Morristown Memorial Hospital and got a letter from Kalleberg suggesting she not quit the hospital because her job as SART and SANE coordinator was in jeopardy.” Peggy Wright, “Prosecutor’s Office Scrambles After Resignations,” Daily Record (Morristown, N.J.), 13 Jan. 2004, at A1. o “There was That Guy, and he’s in every line, the guy who declares to the people in front of and behind him that in Europe, they’re on tenderhooks [read ‘tenterhooks’] to see if we mess this one up, too.” Rachel Sauer, “New Voting Reality: A Long Wait in Line,” Palm Beach Post, 3 Nov. 2004, at D1. Language-Change Index — “tenterhook” misspelled *”tenderhook”: Stage 1. *Invariably inferior form. For information about the Language-Change Index click here. ——————– Quotation of the Day: “Quotation can be overdone. Over-quotation affects some writers like a disease.” G.H. Vallins, The Best English 71 (1960; repr. 1973).
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