Merriam-Webster defines "in tandem" as

1 : in partnership or conjunction

2 : in a tandem arrangement


Based on the definition of tandem,

(a) a bicycle for usually two people sitting one behind the other

(b) 2-seated carriage drawn by horses harnessed one before the other

"in a tandem arrangement" would give me an image of two things aligned one after the other, not aligned in parallel. Therefore, for "events happen in tandem", I would imagine that events do not happen at the same time but one happens after another.

However, Cambridge dictionary defines "in tandem" as

at the same time


Thus, the statement of "events happen in tandem" would indicate two events happen concurrently, not one happening after the other.

Is the term "in tandem" an ambiguous term ? Is "in sequence" or "in order" a preferred term to describe events happening not at the same time ?

1 Answer 1


It actually sounds like you understand this pretty well. "Tandem" means two things together, either in space (as in the bicycle case) or in time (when describing events). It doesn't particularly conjure an image of either one in front of the other or two things side by side. This is similar to the word "together," which doesn't give you any information about which comes first, if any. It just says they are close.

It should be noted that "tandem" is not a particularly common word. Tandem bikes are pretty rare, but they are still probably the most common use of this word.

  • Good stuff. The OED (the second edition) is kinda explicit in that it says in tandem means "arranged one behind the other", but then adds "also fig., together, in partnership", and I think that's driving the blurriness, so to speak, as no one really talks about tandem carriages or bikes or (well, some people do, and they might know, but ordinary folks probably don't) tandem engines. So, to be completely strict, tandem does (or rather, should) mean "one behind the other", but Present-day usage doesn't seem to be as observant, and where such precision matters, I'd avoid that phrase.
    – user3395
    Sep 6, 2019 at 21:40
  • The Cambridge dictionary entry linked above gives an example (for the sense "at the same time"): The heart and lungs will be transplanted in tandem, and despite not being a native speaker of English, I'm fairly certain that sentence is ambiguous as concerns the actual order of transplantations. "Together" is a good paraphrase, but "at the same time" is way too precise. Maybe "at around the same time".
    – user3395
    Sep 6, 2019 at 21:46
  • The English Electric Canberra bomber and reconnaissance aircraft had some versions with a side-by-side cockpit, in which the pilot and navigator sat side by side, and some with a 'tandem' cockpit where they were one behind the other. They arrived somewhere together, whichever layout was adopted. Sep 6, 2019 at 22:27

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