I was interviewed recently by New York Times sports writer Jere Longman about the expression “get untracked” as it applies to teams pulling out of a slump.
The resulting article, titled "A Description as Enigmatic As How to Escape a Slump” appears in the sports section of today’s Sunday Times, where I'm quoted as saying:
“Clearly, it’s a mishearing,” said Paul Brians, an emeritus professor of English at Washington State University and the author of “Common Errors in English Usage.”
“I think people are hearing the phrase ‘he’s got to get back on track,’ and they’re not catching that it’s on, space, track,” he added. “It’s coming across in their minds as ‘untracked.’ And of course, that is exactly the opposite of what they mean to say—that they’re getting back on track, not that they’ve derailed.”However, the article goes on to cite several linguists and other researchers who have tracked back to the late 19th century the use of “untracked” as referring to a racehorse having trouble getting into its stride. In modern times it seems to have spread widely in sports writing to the extent that it has been accepted as standard usage by several authoritative reference works.
Outside of sports writing it sometimes appears in headlines affixed to articles which themselves do not contain the term.
Here's a typical example:
In such cases I suspect a sports-influenced headline writer has used an expression that the author of the article might not have chosen.
In other cases “untracked” clearly means “unstuck” to the writer:
Counseling sessions last around 45 minutes. For many students, one or two sessions are enough to get untracked.
Here it seems to me “untracked” is being treated as a synonym for “on track.”
Longman's research turned up a number of people in the sporting world who are confused or put off by “get untracked,” so calling it “standard usage” even in the realm where it is most common may be exaggerating a bit.
Some writers feel their job is to rule a usage either right or wrong, but I tend to side with those who prefer to examine how acceptable, unusual, or off-putting a particular usage is. This case is almost impossible to quantify, but it's worth noting that according to Google on the Web the expression “get back on track” is about 2,000 times more common than “get untracked.”
Even if “get untracked” has had a separate history from “get back on track" it seems highly likely that the two expressions have long gotten confused with each other in many people’s minds, and that far more readers are likely to be flummoxed, like Longman, by “untracked.”
Here’s what I wrote in 2009 on p. 302 of Common Errors in English Usage:
When things begin running smoothly and successfully, they get “on track.” Some people oddly substitute “untracked” for this expression, perhaps thinking that to be “tracked” is to be stuck in a rut.
The result of all this is that I've revised this entry as follows, to appear in future printings of the book:
When things begin running smoothly and successfully, they get “on track.” Some people substitute “untracked” for this expression, perhaps thinking that to be “tracked” is to be stuck in a rut.
“Untracked” in a positive sense can be traced back a century or more, mainly in sports writing; but it is liable to confuse readers who are used to “on track.” After all, if a train gets off track it gets derailed—wrecked; and to get off one track and onto another is to switch tracks, not get “untracked.”
So by continuing to include “untracked” in Common Errors in English Usage am I continuing to call “get untracked” an error? Not necessarily. As I’ve explained in many contexts, the book is not a mere list of errors. Rather it discusses usage that may be considered erroneous by some English users.
Would it be less confusing if I changed the title of the book? Undoubtedly, but for several reasons that’s not practical. I’ll continue tracking usage in the same way, trying not to switch tracks.