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.
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.
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.”
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