'Tail' vs 'Tale': What's the Difference?

By Katie Moore, updated on August 18, 2023

‘Tail’ vs ‘Tale’: What’s the difference? How do you tell words apart when they sound exactly the same? These can sometimes be the most confusing words because we have to rely heavily on context clues to clarify which word is being used. And, of course, we need to know what the words mean in order to use them. So, let’s figure out how to properly use ‘Tail’ vs ‘Tale’.

In a rush? Here’s a quick preview of what’s to come: 

  • ‘Tail’ is a word that means the hindmost part of an animal that is typically a flexible extension.
  • ‘Tale’ is a word that means a narrative or story. 

What’s the Difference Between ‘Tail’ vs ‘Tale’?

Apart from their spelling, what are some ways we can distinguish between these two words? What might first help is understanding what it means when we have two identical-sounding words. ‘Tail’ vs ‘Tale’ are examples of homophones. 

  • Homophones are words that are spelled differently and have different definitions, but they are pronounced the same. 

Some other examples of homophones are: 

Homophones can be tricky to learn at first, but there are other ways to tell words apart. For ‘Tail’ vs ‘Tale,’ we can break down a couple of clues that will help us determine which word is the right one to use. First, let’s think big versus small. 

  • ‘Tail’ is a word that describes a body part, and while those can come in all sizes, it is typically a little thing attached to a creature. Meanwhile, ‘Tale’ is a word that describes a grand story or narrative, like a magical adventure — something that is on a much larger scope. 

If we consider the size of what these words stand for, we might be able to better understand what they mean and how they differ. You can also use the spelling of the words themselves as clues. 

  • For example, take the word ‘Tail.’ It ends in the letter “l,” which is long and sounds rather flexible, much like a ‘Tail’ on an animal. You can visualize a ‘Tail’ being like the letter “l” and use that to remind yourself that that spelling corresponds to that definition. 

All of this can be a great starting point for learning new words, but it doesn’t give us the whole picture. Let’s take a closer look individually at ‘Tail’ vs ‘Tale.’

Definition of ‘Tail’: What Does it Mean?

According to Oxford Languages, ‘Tail’ is a noun that means: 

  • The hindmost part of an animal, especially when prolonged beyond the rest of the body, such as the flexible extension of the backbone in vertebrae, the feathers at the end of a bird, or a terminal appendage in an insect
    • “The dog’s tail began to wag.”
  • A thing resembling an animal’s tale in shape or position, typically something extending downwards or outwards at the end of something.
    • “The trailed tail of a capital Q”
  • The rear part of an airplane, with the horizontal stabilizer and rudder
    • “The fuselage tapers sharply towards the tail.”
  • The lower hanging part of a garment, especially in the back of a shirt or coat
    • “He stormed off, the tails of his jacket flapping behind him.”
  • A tailcoat; a man’s formal evening suit with such a coat
    • “The men looked debonair in white tie and tails.”
  • The luminous trail of particles following a comet
  • The lower edge of a pool or stream
    • “Shallow riffles and the tails of pools are prime feeding areas.”
  • The exposed end of a late or tile in a roof
  • The end of a long train or line of people or vehicles
    • “An armored truck at the tail of the convoy.”
  • The final, more distant, or weaker part of something
    • “The forecast says we’re in for the tail of the hurricane.”
  • A person secretly following another to observe their movements
    • “I can’t put a tail on him. I don’t know where he’s gone.”
  • (informally) a person’s buttocks or backside
    • “That’ll give you a good kick in the tail.”
  • The reverse side of a coin (used when tossing a coin)
    • “The chances of heads and tails are equal.”

As a verb, the word ‘Tail’ can also mean: 

  • Follow and observe someone closely, especially in secret.
    • “A flock of paparazzi had tailed them all over Paris.”
  • Follow
    • “They went to the cafe — Bill and Sally tailed along.”
  • Provide with a tail.
    • “Her calligraphy was topped by banners of black ink and tailed like the haunches of fabulous beasts.”
  • (of an object in flight) drift or curve in a particular direction
    • “The next pitch tailed in on me at the last second.”

Synonyms of ‘Tail’

  • Rear
  • Back end
  • Rudder
  • Appendage
  • Extremity
  • Tailpiece
  • Hound
  • Stalk
  • Follow
  • Pursue
  • Shadow
  • Buttocks
  • Rear end

Antonyms of ‘Tail’

  • Beginning
  • Front
  • Start
  • Head
  • Run away
  • Flee
  • Leave alone

Phrases with ‘Tail’

  • Tail end
  • Heads or tails
  • Tail someone
  • Chase your tail 
  • Tail between your legs
  • On your tail 
  • Tail wag
  • Tail lights 
  • Rat tail 

Definition of ‘Tale’: What Does it Mean?

According to Oxford Languages, ‘Tale’ is a noun that means: 

  • A fictitious or true narrative or story, especially one that is imaginatively recounted
    • “A delightful children’s tale.”
  • A lie
  • (archaic) a number or total — now more likely considered a ‘Tally.’
    • “An exact tale of the dead soldiers.”

Interestingly, the root of the word ‘Tale’ is Germanic, but it went on to mean different things among the newer Germanic languages. English evolved from the Old English ‘talu,’ which Dutch evolved from ‘taal’ which means speech. Meanwhile, German adapted to ‘zahl’, which means number. While slightly different, it’s interesting to see how all these words adapted to be similar. 

Synonyms of ‘Tale’

  • Story
  • Anecdote
  • Fable
  • Fiction
  • Legend
  • Myth
  • Narrative
  • Novel
  • Saga
  • Fairytale

Antonyms of ‘Tale’

  • Nonfiction 
  • Truth
  • Poem
  • Video
  • Picture

Phrases with ‘Tale’

  • Folk tale
  • Fairytale
  • Tall tale
  • To tell a tale
  • Quite the tale
  • Tale of Adventure
  • Lost tales

Pronunciation: How to Pronounce ‘Tail’ vs ‘Tale’

One nice thing about homophones is that they are pronounced exactly the same. So while learning to distinguish them when hearing them aloud can be more confusing, learning to say them correctly is much easier. You essentially get two words for the price of one pronunciation. Of course, we want to make sure you’re saying the words properly to avoid any further confusion and ensure clarity when you engage in conversation or give a presentation. 

Use the phonetic spelling of ‘Tail’ vs ‘Tale’ as a guide: 

  • ‘Tay-l’ (the ‘a’ vowel in both words is wide and flat, as in “betrayal” or “jail”)

How to Use ‘Tail’ vs ‘Tale’ in a Sentence

One of the most important things that will help you deal with identifying homophones is context. When we can’t see which spelling of the word is being used, we must rely on the context clues we hear to ensure we engage with the word properly. 

Below you’ll find some sample sentences using ‘Tail’ vs ‘Tale’ that you can study and then use as a guide to try writing your own practice sentences. 

‘Tail’ Example Sentences

  • Many animals use their tails for balance and support, like lemurs who wrap them around branches for security while climbing. 
  • She showed up so late due to traffic that she only caught the tail end of the performance. 
  • The mafia was notorious for tailing suspicious rivals, but they never got caught because of how stealthy they were. 
  • After being rejected, he awkwardly left the bar with his tail proverbially between his legs. 

‘Tale’ Example Sentences

  • The children always read a chapter from their big book of tall tales before bedtime. 
  • He had to come up with quite the tale to avoid his parents being suspicious of where he had gone last night. 
  • They had heard tales of catacombs hidden under the city and wanted to investigate. 
  • The hostess needed an exact tale of everyone who would be attending the dinner. 

‘Tail’ vs ‘Tale’ Example Sentences

  • The knight cut off the dragon’s tail and rescued the princess, concluding the adventurous tale
  • Multiple parties had heard tales of the treasure and began to tail one another on course to the secret location. 

Final Advice on ‘Tail’ vs ‘Tale’

Learning homophones can be especially tricky at first, but when you use tools like definitions and context clues, learning them becomes easier. And don’t forget with words like ‘Tail’ vs ‘Tale’ you can use the idea of big versus small and the shape and position of the letter “l” as more specific hints. 

Want a recap? Here’s a short review of what we covered: 

  • ‘Tail’ is a noun that refers to the extended appendage of an animal or the act of following someone. 
  • Meanwhile, ‘Tale’ is a noun referring to a typically fictitious narrative, story, or lie. 
  • Finally, remember that homophones are words spelled and defined differently but pronounced identically. 

Want to keep expanding your vocabulary? Be sure to check out other confusing word articles that tackle more homophones and other tricky linguistic occurrences. Remember that context clues will always guide you to the right destination, and when you unlock one homophone, you can easily learn the other.

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Written By:
Katie Moore
Katie is a recent graduate of Occidental College where she worked as a writer and editor for the school paper while studying linguistics and journalism. She loves helping others find their voice in writing and making their work the strongest it can be. Katie also loves learning and speaking other languages and wants to help make writing accessible for everyone.

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