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November 28th, 2007

Complimentary vs. complementary / abbreviating titles / forte

by Barbara Wallraff

Patty Potter, of Ann Arbor, Mich., writes: “I am distressed at the prevalence of the word ‘complimentary,’ instead of ‘complementary,’ when referring to something free -- as in ‘a complimentary dessert with your meal.’ Is the dessert going to say nice things about me? Perhaps I am mistaken. Has the word ‘complimentary’ become acceptable for this purpose?”

Dear Patty: How tactful you are to say “Perhaps I am mistaken,” instead of coming out with both barrels blazing at the fools who spell the word “complimentary.” Tactful -- and also wise, because in fact one meaning of “complimentary” is, approximately, “free.” “Complementary” means “additional and completing.” So a dessert that is “complementary” to sweet wine goes well with it, while one that is “complimentary” with the meal comes at no extra charge.

The two words are easily confused, because they used to be one word, spelled “complementary.” But in the late 17th century people began to use the spelling “compliment” for acts of courtesy. To “make a compliment” of something meant, and means, to give it. To “pay a compliment,” of course, means to praise. Once you start thinking of it that way -- that the dessert is a courtesy on the part of the restaurant, much as kind words are courteous -- it begins to make sense that “complimentary” can mean “free.”

Cris Carusi, of Madison, Wis., writes: “I write about programs and publications that have long titles. After listing the full title once, I often refer to these programs using an abbreviated title. For example: ‘Wisconsin’s School for Beginning Dairy and Livestock Farmers is held in Madison. The School opened its doors in 1995.’ My question is, Should ‘School’ be capitalized when referring to a specific program such as this one?”

Dear Cris: No. It’s tempting to imagine that all proper names are alike, and that since, for example, a critic will call “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” “King” the second time he or she refers to it, the “School for Beginning Dairy and Livestock Farmers”should get the same treatment.

But there’s a difference. The “Lord of the Rings” movie is not a king -- it’s a movie. Your school actually is a school. So when you refer to it in this abbreviated way, you’re using the common noun “school,” rather than a shortened version of its name.

Jack Dillon, of Albany, N.Y., writes: “Years ago I watched Dick Cavett interview a celebrity who used the word ‘forte’ to mean another person’s strong point. He pronounced it ‘for-tay.’ Mr. Cavett corrected him, saying he should have pronounced the noun ‘fort,’ one syllable. ‘Forte’ pronounced ‘for-tay’ is an adjective that means ‘loud’ in classical music.”

Dear Jack: Years ago Dick Cavett was right. But the standard pronunciation of “forte” meaning a strength has been changing during the past half-century. These days, most people, including about three-quarters of the American Heritage Dictionary usage panel, pronounce it “for-tay.” As the AHD notes, “Speakers who are aware of the origin of the word (it comes from French, whereas the musical direction comes from Italian) may wish to continue to pronounce it as one syllable but at an increasing risk of puzzling their listeners.”

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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