A Word, Please: My compliments to the dictionary

I'm a big believer in looking things up. People who are baffled by finer points of grammar and usage are often amazed to learn how many mysteries can be solved simply by opening a dictionary.

I'm not just talking about spellings and definitions. If you don't know whether you've drank or drunk your coffee, whether your picture is hanged or hung, or whether you want to stay for a while or stay for awhile, your answers can all be found in a dictionary. (For folks keeping score at home, the abridged answers are: you've drunk your coffee, your picture is hung and you stay for a while.)

But occasionally I come across a language issue on which the dictionary actually adds to the confusion. Specifically, I'm talking about "compliment" and "complement."

The difference between these two words is among the first things an editor learns. When you compliment something, you make a flattering remark. But when a wine complements a meal, that means it goes well with it. Or, as almost any editor will put it, to compliment is "to make a flattering remark about" and to complement is "to go well with."

We know this one so well that most of us haven't bothered to look up either word in years. But if and when we finally do, we realize that our pithy summary is just a wee bit off.

"Complement, transitive verb: to make complete." That's how "Webster's New World College Dictionary," the official reference followed by most news sources in the U.S., puts it. And that's all this resource says. There's no definition in there that says "complement" means "to go well with." To complement is, according to this resource, to complete. Period.

That came as a shock when, after years of being sure I fully understood this word, I looked it up in that Webster's. It caused me to reassess how I use it.

"Complement" often comes up in articles about food and fashion. The quintessential example is that a well-chosen wine complements a meal. Other common uses are found in sentences like "Those shoes perfectly complement that gown" and "The throw pillows complement the décor." See why users think of "complement" as meaning "to go well with"?

So, does a strict interpretation of "to complement" reveal these sentences to be incorrect? Perhaps not. A well-chosen wine can just as easily complete a meal as it can go with it. (Or so I'm told. I never touch the stuff, personally.) On the other hand, shoes don't complete a gown. When paired with a gown they may complete a look or complete an ensemble. But they don't complete the gown itself.

This is the part where, normally, I would caution users to be careful to comply with their designated dictionary. Instead, this is a rare case in which my strongest words are for the people who make the dictionaries.

A lexicographer's job and a dictionary's job is to report how people use the language. They do an impressive job. I'm often amazed at how hard their work must be and how well thought out their decisions are. But, if my highly unscientific assessment is correct, the dictionaries are getting this one wrong.

If it's true that people use "complement" to mean "to go well with" as often as I think they do, it's high time that definition appeared in all the major dictionaries. Such a decision would definitely earn my compliments.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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