The word columnist offers a mea culpa

I have been writing “In a Word” for almost two years, and I have made mistakes. To the readers who have written in when I have erred: This is for you.


When newspapers get things wrong, they publish corrections. These are sometimes quite funny, as many top 10 lists of newspaper corrections attest.

The Wall Street Journal, for example, once alerted its readers that it had mistakenly referred to pop star Britney Spears as “Briney Spear.” Brazilian newsmagazine Veja emended its profile of a politician: “The candidate likes to spend his free time reading Tolstoy, and not watching ‘Toy Story,’ as originally reported.”

The Washington Post had to announce “An earlier version of this story incorrectly located Brooklyn in the Canadian province of Quebec. It is in New York.”

I have been writing “In a Word” for almost two years, and I have made mistakes of my own, though none of them are quite so entertaining. To all the readers who have written in when I have erred in my grammar, misspelled something, or expressed myself badly, this is for you.

First of all, it is clear that I cannot spell complimentary. In my Dec. 16, 2019, column on fulsome, I explained (twice!) that the predominant meaning of the word today is “excessively complementary.” Several people wrote in pointing out that “complementary” is not correct, with one very kind reader wondering whether I had slipped it in as a test to see who was paying attention.

I wish that were true, but no, I was just wrong.

Nor was it just a momentary lapse of concentration. I have done it before, in my Oct. 25, 2018, column, “Borrowed words spice up English.”

To set the record straight, complementary actually means “serving to fill out or complete” or “mutually supplying each other’s lack,” as in: “The oboe and the violin have complementary tones.” The word I seem to be always looking for is complimentary, “expressing praise or admiration,” or “given free as a courtesy.”

Fowler’s Modern English Usage provides a helpful mnemonic to avoid confusion like mine: “a complement completes something, and completes is spelled with an e. If you pay someone a compliment, you are being kind, with an i, to them.”

In my column in the Dec. 30, 2019 & Jan. 6, 2020 issue, “What should we call the decade that just ended?,” I upset some readers by claiming that “The 2000s and 2010s ... are too recent for us to be able to discern what, if any, their defining events were.” I should have differentiated the 2010s from the 2000s, which were indelibly marked in 2001 by 9/11, and might come to be known as the “post-9/11 era.” I certainly did not mean to sound dismissive of 9/11, and I apologize.

While my corrections won’t make anyone’s top 10 list, I am still glad to get them off my chest!

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