Monday, April 27, 2009

Getting Our Just Deserts: Not So Yummy

There are many words that have similar spellings, similar (or identical) pronunciations, and entirely different meanings. Take, for example, dessert and desert

Actually, dessert is clear enough. It’s a noun referring to that part of the meal that many of us look forward to while munching on our vegetables.

But what about desert, the noun, and desert, the verb, which are spelled the same, pronounced differently, and have very different meanings?

The verb desert (which is pronounced the same as dessert) means to abandon or fail (as in “She deserted her post because her courage deserted her”). Not a sentence we would write, of course, except to illustrate a point.

The noun desert is also easily defined, as in an area that is dry and usually covered in sand. The adjective desert (as in “desert conditions”) is also easily understood. This noun and this adjective are pronounced the same.

But what about the noun desert (pronounced like the noun dessert or the verb desert) when it refers to receiving an appropriate punishment or, less commonly, an appropriate reward. “He received his just deserts” is a phrase frequently used to indicate someone “got what was coming to him.”

Personally, I tend to misspell the latter noun as dessert rather than the correct desert. The dessert spelling and meaning seem to fit better to me. After all, we often tell children we’ll withhold dessert if they don’t behave. But if they misbehave and are thus not allowed to have dessert, we say they are getting their just deserts. 

Gads! I need some chocolate!  

Friday, April 17, 2009

To Compliment or to Complement: That Is the Question

Most of us know the difference between compliment and complement, but do you ever have to stop and think which to use?

 The two meanings, of course, are quite different. To complement is to add to something or to complete something, as in “His new necktie complements his suit.” To compliment is to admire or praise, as in “I complimented him on his new necktie.”

 There is a similar difference, of course, between complementary and complimentary.  One would say, “She purchased a coat with a complementary hat and scarf.” However, if the hat and scarf were gifts from the merchant, we would say, “She purchased the coat, but the hat and scarf were complimentary.”