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Is pronunciation your forte?

Q: How is the word “forte” pronounced in this sentence: “Pronunciation is not my forte”? I usually hear people say “FOR-tay,” as in the Italian word for loud. Shouldn’t it be “fort,” as in the French word for strength? Has FOR-tay become acceptable through wide usage?

A: You’re right about the noun “forte,” meaning a strong point. It comes from French and by tradition should be pronounced like “Fort” Knox. The other pronunciation, FOR-tay, is a musical term, meaning loud, and comes from Italian. (In Italian it’s also an adjective meaning strong.)

Be that as it may, the two-syllable version is so entrenched, doubtless because of the Italian influence, that dictionaries now accept it. In fact, the Usage Panel of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) overwhelmingly prefers the FOR-tay pronunciation, though FORT is also standard English.

Be advised that some sticklers will turn up their noses when “forte” is pronounced with two syllables, but many more people will respond with a “Huh?” when it’s pronounced with one.

So which pronunciation should you pick? A usage note in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) offers this advice: “You can take your choice, knowing that someone somewhere will dislike whichever variant you choose.”

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