I got an email from my friend Seth Nowak on January 13, 2011 reporting, “Obama said ‘tenent’ in his speech last night.  One term president.”

The speech to which Seth was referring is the moving, poignant speech Obama delivered following the shooting rampage in Tucson.  Obviously Seth was joking to me, The Essay Expert, that a small error like mixing up “tenet” with “tenant” would affect (not effect) Obama’s approval rating.Obama Tuscon Arizona Speech Tenant Tenet

Just a few days before, I had corrected Seth when he said “tenent” (or “tenant” — he was speaking not writing, so I can’t be sure) when he meant “tenet.”  Thus he could not help but notice Obama’s slip of tongue.

To clarify, “tenet” means “any opinion, principle, doctrine, dogma, etc., esp. one held as true by members of a profession, group, or movement.” A tenant, on the other hand, is a person, a group of persons, or an entity occupying a space, usually a rental space (my definition).

“Tenent” is not a word in modern English, though in the interests of full disclosure, it is listed on dictionary.com as “Obs.” (Obsolete).  It does not appear anywhere in the dictionary on my shelf, Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (copyright 1987, the year I headed to college – and if that’s not obsolete, I don’t know what is).

Obama’s spoken sentence was as follows:

“They were fulfilling a central tenant[sic] of the democracy envisioned by our founders.”

The transcriber was kind to our President.  The text “tenant[sic]” does not appear in the transcription; instead, the official version in The New York Times reads, “They were fulfilling a central tenet….

Tenet vs Tenant

The day before Obama’s speech, I had put “tenant/tenet” on my list of Top 10 Grammatical Errors of 2011 (scheduled for publication in December 2011).  Why?  Because inside of one week in January, not including Obama’s speech, I heard “tenant” used incorrectly twice: once by Seth as reported above, and once in a draft of a law school application essay.  I won’t quote that essay here for reasons of confidentiality, but here’s an example of a sentence in a draft law school application essay I received a year ago:

“The general tenants of my thesis was that developing a national childcare system would contribute to the economy and better the lives of all Canadians.”

This sentence has two problems:  First, she meant “tenet”; and second, even if “tenants” were correct, the verb “was” is singular whereas “tenants” is plural.  This client was not accepted into any Canadian law schools, despite the fact that her errors were corrected.  She did get accepted in England.

The moral of the story:  If you want to get into law school, or be elected for a second term, get straight about the difference between “tenet” and “tenant.”  I understand that “n” sound just wants to come out somehow, but try to keep it in check.

So what do you think?  One term or two?  Perhaps that’s really the important question here.


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