What does "in tandem" mean?

This headline brought a note from a reader:

‘Extreme Makeover’ helped, but ministry now struggles

Refurbishing was in tandem with work on member’s home

The phrase "in tandem," the reader said, doesn’t mean parallel or side by side. It means one after the other. The headline refers to two projects that occurred almost simultaneously.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, tandem comes from the name for a carriage that was pulled by two horses hitched one after the other, and as a adverb, it refers to one behind the other. It also applies to the famous bicycle built for two and to those cool-looking bikes with the child carriers hitched behind. The dictionary also notes that in tandem means "arranged one behind the other," or figuratively, together or in partnership.

In one way, the headline’s use of "in tandem" can be understood literally because the idea of building the house came first, then the idea of renovating the ministry’s building, even if the work was done almost at the same time. The first "horse" in this effort was the home construction and the second "horse" was the building renovation.

But the reader is correct that the headline implies two simultaneous events, and that is not strictly the meaning of "in tandem."

The OED also lists another meaning for tandem: cooperative, joint or dual. So if two companies work together on a project, the result could be called a "tandem operation."

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.