53

I've always heard people say something like

"Pronunciation is not my [for-tay]"

... but I feel that I've heard that the correct pronunciation is

"Confusing people is my [fort]"

What is the proper way to pronounce this word?

4
  • What a paradox where if you state the word in its correct sense, people have trouble understanding you. But if you state it, even knowingly, incorrectly, then people know what you are saying.
    – user50172
    Aug 21, 2013 at 4:25
  • 1
    James J. Kilpatrick, who was my hero, said it was pronounced, "fort." That's good enough for me.
    – user51758
    Sep 11, 2013 at 22:00
  • Summary: The confusion may come from 'forte' as used in music for strong or loud, which is definitely pronounced 'for tay' = /ˈfɔr teɪ/. In French, the same letters are pronounced 'fort' = /fɔrt/. But those languages are not English, and English has its own rules, inspired by the originals but with no compunction to remain faithful, at least here with the French borrowing.
    – Mitch
    Jul 12, 2018 at 19:48
  • So did George Carlin ...and that was more than enough for me...!!! Mar 26, 2019 at 7:18

8 Answers 8

55

If you want to be perfectly and unimpeachably correct, you will pronounce the word forte, meaning something that is one’s strong point, identically to the word fort, and reserve the FOR-tay pronunciation only for the musical term.

Most people don't know about this distinction and pronounce it FOR-tay for all senses, both the “strong point” sense as well as the musical term. Most people will not notice or care if you do that. In fact, if you say that some subject is or is not your “fort”, people will look at you quizzically and perhaps even ask “do you mean FOR-tay?”. On the other hand, if you use the pronunciation “FOR-tay” those of us who know the difference may judge you to be ignorant.

In either case, you take a risk of some sort. Bryan Garner came up with the name “skunked term” for words like this, in his 1998 Dictionary of Modern American Usage:

When a word undergoes a marked change from one use to another … it’s likely to be the subject of dispute. Some people (Group 1) insist on the traditional use; others (Group 2) embrace the new use.… Any use of [the word] is likely to distract some readers. The new use seems illiterate to Group 1; the old use seems odd to Group 2. The word has become “skunked.”

My advice is to find a substitute word or phrase.

8
  • 2
    +1 I thought I was being smart when I used fort-ay, now I feel dumb:-)
    – ukayer
    Nov 10, 2010 at 4:51
  • 4
    wow.. i always always thought it was FORtay. i refuse to absorb this new information and will continue doing so.
    – Claudiu
    Nov 18, 2010 at 7:30
  • 3
    I challenge anyone to find a radio, tv, or movie where someone pronounces "forte" as "fort". "That's my forte" would just sound ridiculous and should best be avoided if you feel the need to pronounce it as "fort"; but for people not inflicted with that pronunciation, they may continue to use that phrase. Feb 27, 2011 at 7:57
  • 6
    As a British English speaker, at least, I have never once heard this word pronounced /fɔrt/. I would suggest /ˈfɔrˌteɪ/ is the accepted pronunciation, at least in the UK. Pronouncing it as though it were (still) a French word would definitely seem wrong, over here, at least. Feb 25, 2012 at 20:40
  • 3
    Avoid using a word because it has more than one pronunciation, or because one pronunciation is being pushed out by another? Second, I am 52 and never heard forte pronounced as fort. Maybe people were saying it, but I wasn't hearing it. I've never heard it pronounced as anything other than fortay. I would never consider this to be an incorrect pronunciation, mainly because I'm not a prescriptionist.
    – pazzo
    Sep 15, 2014 at 17:30
15

This source http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/forte suggests that the correct pronunciation of the word in your context is 'fort', as it is derived from the French 'fort' (strong) and the 'for-tay' pronunciation appeared through confusion with the 'forte' in music meaning loud, which is Italian and correctly pronounced 'for-tay'.

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  • 6
    In Italian, forte does mean strong. This is a fact which calls into question other comments made on this page. Oct 3, 2014 at 3:00
  • 1
    There's an obvious shared etymology, but forte is an Italian musical term that's used as an adjective/adverb and wouldn't make any sense the way it's used grammatically in English in sentences like "Fighting zombies on rollerskates is my forte" where it's clearly a noun. The French word is a noun meaning "strength" or "the strong part of something", and the Italian term means "loud/loudly", so the French word's definition and pronunciation would seem far more relevant here. Jun 29, 2020 at 20:07
10

The Oxford Dictionary considers both forms to be correct.

The French feminine form was substituted for the masculine in English, similar to locale, morale etc. The Pronunciation was latterly inflected.

8

As reported by the NOAD, the pronunciation is |ˈfɔrˌteɪ| or |fɔrt|, whenever forte means a thing at which someone excels, or loud/loudly.
In the first case, the origin of the word is from a French word fort (masculine), or forte (feminine), from Latin fortis; in the second case the origin is the Italian word forte, from the Latin fortis. The difference is that in the first case the word has been borrowed from French, while in the other case the word has been borrowed from Italian; in both the cases, the word derive from the same Latin word.
In Italian, the used word is forte for both the meanings; if there is any difference in the pronunciation is probably to differentiate the different origin of the English words.

4
  • 2
    Does that mean the answer is "yes"? Aug 21, 2010 at 1:04
  • 1
    @Daniel: Yes, it is.
    – apaderno
    Aug 21, 2010 at 1:15
  • I think you've got your two pronunciations reversed in your first sentence: |ˈfɔrˌteɪ| is loudly, and |fɔrt| is a thing at which someone excels. Aug 31, 2010 at 3:45
  • 3
    @ ShreevatsaR: Actually, NOAD reports both the pronunciations in both the cases.
    – apaderno
    Aug 31, 2010 at 11:06
8

Define "proper." Language change, including pronunciation change is inevitable. And reference books, no matter how prescriptive, cannot stem the tide of change, which can come from overwhelming use by the masses. Frankly, I've never heard forte (meaning strength) pronounced as anything other than for-tay, and I am fifty two.

If you are unsure or waffling, I suggest you pronounce it the way that the social group you wish to identify with pronounces it, and that can include pronouncing it differently around different people.

3
  • Well said- better than I could do it.
    – JenSCDC
    Sep 15, 2014 at 22:18
  • 1
    Absolutely. This sounds like faux-prescriptivism to me, having to go back to etymological roots to justify pronunciation. Pronounce words to be understood, and you are correct.
    – scruss
    Feb 1, 2015 at 13:46
  • Great answer! We don't tell the French not to pronounce shampooing like shahmpwen, so I don't see why anybody should tell us to pronounce forte like fort. Nov 13, 2018 at 12:41
5

In common American usage I have always heard "for-tay" because saying "fort" sounds like another word spelled f-o-r-t meaning a temporary dwelling.

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  • 8
    To comment on being judged as illiterate, I would say language is about being understood by the listener. If you are "right" but no one else understands what you are trying to say than you are not communicating well, if you are "wrong" but make your point, then you have effectively communicated. Aug 31, 2010 at 3:41
  • 4
    I've never heard fort used to mean a temporary dwelling.
    – TRiG
    Feb 2, 2011 at 16:22
  • 6
    @TRiG You've never made a blanket fort? :-p Seriously, though, I think you're right. I've heard it for certain kinds of defensive emplacements (ie. Fort Knox) but not dwellings.
    – cha0sys
    Jul 7, 2011 at 22:56
4

I always heard the ‘strength’ meaning came from fencing, where you try to parry with the inner half of the blade (the forte), because it's stronger than the outer half, the foible. If so, it would come from Italian rather than French, so two syllables.

1
  • 1
    Why would the fencing term necessarily come from Italian rather than French? I don't follow. French terms are certainly used in fencing, such as "En garde." The Oxford English Dictionary lists both meanings in the same entry, and has some citations of the spelling "fort" being used to refer to part of the sword.
    – herisson
    Apr 10, 2016 at 18:16
3

NOAD has three pronunciations: |ˈfɔːteɪ| |ˈfɔːti| |fɔːt| (with the first one only for the musical term).

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