## Complimentary Internet in the lobby

What does "Complimentary High-speed Internet access on the lobby level" mean? You can see the phrase on the website of the Hilton Washington Dulles Airport hotel. Did you imagine it meant that if you opened your laptop on the lobby level of the hotel a wireless Internet network would come up and you could connect for free? Oh, you are so naive. You are not a sophisticated jet-setter like Robert Langdon and me.

Actually, until a few minutes ago I was like you. I imagined, trustingly, that after checking out of my room and doing my morning recording session at The Teaching Company, I would be able to sit in the lobby of my hotel and continue to work on academic and administrative tasks until my evening flight out of Dulles, and I would have complimentary high-speed wireless Internet access courtesy of the hotel. But instead the usual "Now agree to a $9.99 charge on your room bill" screen came up as soon as I pointed the browser in the direction of Language Log. I went and asked at the registration desk. And here is what Hilton Hotels thought "complimentary high-speed Internet access" meant: if you are a guest, and you register for Internet access in your room, and agree to have the$9.99 charged thereto, then after that you can also use your laptop in the lobby for no extra charge. So if you pay $9.99 for the relevant 24 hours it's free. I think that's a pretty weird interpretation of "complimentary". Suppose (I invited the assistant manager to imagine) they said there were complimentary apples on the lobby level, and when you went to get some they explained that they actually meant that if you went up to your room and paid for an order of room-service apples to be brought up and signed for, you could then bring one down and eat it in the lobby area. Would you not be mildly surprised? Or even modestly irked? It is only the linguistic point I am concerned with here. I had picked this hotel after reading its Internet access policies; they were important to my plans. I am a native speaker of English, and I felt that I the text they published had genuinely misled me on an important point. I don't tell this story to criticize Hilton Hotels. The assistant manager immediately saw the force of my logic and the misleading character of the website language. What she did was to reopen my bill, get me registered as agreeing to pay$9.99 for another 24 hourse, and then she used her discretion to take $9.99 off the bill. Net money changing hands: zero dollars, zero cents. Net cost to hotel (where the wireless router is on all the time no matter what), zero. Another satisfied customer, at no expense. But the composer of the website boilerplate really does need to be taken back to truth-in-advertising school. The notion that "complimentary Internet access" might mean "complimentary Internet access for those guests who have paid for Internet access" is going a semantic bridge too far. Isn't that right? Is it me, or is it them? ## 53 Comments 1. ### Guan Yang said, October 26, 2009 @ 2:38 pm At the Doubletree in Honolulu (part of the Hilton group), internet access was actually free in the lobby when I stayed there in January. The trick was that if you log on to their wireless network in the lobby and take your laptop up to your room, it's still online and free. 2. ### Andy Hollandbeck said, October 26, 2009 @ 2:53 pm When you first tried to log on, and you were asked to agree to a$9.99 charge, did it start off with something like "Gosh, you look handsome today!"? In that case, it would still be complimentary.

[Yeah, the connection page did say I looked pretty good. But I actually do look unusually good today. In part this is because I was video-recording all morning, and when I left I forgot to take the TV makeup off. This afternoon an ATM tried to flirt with me. But I say, if it has the hots for my looks, let it slip an extra twenty into the cash slot to show me it is serious. Or maybe forty; I don't want it to think I'm cheap. —GKP]

3. ### Garth Williamson said,

October 26, 2009 @ 2:56 pm

In New Zealand this is very likely to breach the Fair Trading Act. I have never seen complimentary used for something that wasn't free as in bonus before.

4. ### Karen said,

October 26, 2009 @ 3:22 pm

This is pretty common. They could claim they were covered by that "in the lobby" phrase, of course.

What's funny (sort of) is that only the expensive hotels pull this. The midprice ones actually have free Internet. But the Hiltons and Marriotts expect their guests to be on expense accounts and shrug off that extra $10. [Quite right, Karen. And this ripoff is actually worse in other countries. In Edinburgh (a beautiful but rather expensive city) you can pay more like$24 for your 24 hours of sporadic access to a network that they run all the time anyway at almost zero cost. I realize it's a necessary part of the business plan (those pillow mints and little Crabtree & Evelyn lotion bottles cost money), but I find I always resent it. —GKP]

5. ### Filius Lunae said,

October 26, 2009 @ 3:38 pm

It makes you wonder how many people have actually paid for that.
Looking on the website you linked to, I see that other services are 'complimentary' as well; your confusion and feeling of deception were well justified.

6. ### Clarissa said,

October 26, 2009 @ 3:40 pm

I agree with you–I would have expected there to be a very limited-range network in the lobby that was free to use *in the lobby* regardless of whether you had also paid for it in your room. I've encountered just this situation, described and advertised with just this language, in plenty of hotels. Their claim that it means something else is absurd. I would have been really upset to discover their fanciful take on it.

But then, I've generally found that the "nicer" the hotel, the more money you pay for internet access (not to mention parking). It's really irritating.

7. ### Karen said,

October 26, 2009 @ 3:57 pm

I should add that on second thought I think that they *aren't* covered, unless it says something like "paying guests can access the Internet for no extra charge"… I see why they don't want everybody in town hanging out in their lobby, but the last time I stayed in the UK they handed out slips with passwords to people who were registered.

8. ### John Cowan said,

October 26, 2009 @ 4:16 pm

The cost of the network is far from zero; that's the marginal cost, which in a situation of perfect competition would set the price, but a wireless network inside a hotel is about as far from perfect competition as can be imagined. Instead, the hotel sets the access price such that the network they have provisioned will be used, with a prudent margin for the unexpected. If they lowered the price, there would be too many users and the network would have to be expanded. If they raised the price, not enough people would use the network to justify its cost.

That said, pricing is mostly a black art that behaves nothing like the predictions of microeconomics.

9. ### Dmajor said,

October 26, 2009 @ 4:26 pm

I've spent a lot of time in negotiations with various merchants, trying to find some expression that means "actually and really free, at no cost to me, as if I had come in naked, with no pockets, and thus no cash, and could not pay for anything, it would still be okay — that kind of no charge no fees no payment free." But there seems to be no combination of words in English that can be expressed by a salesperson/hotel rep/merchant that can be relied to on to have the plain meaning of "you will not have to give us any money at all". Any phrase appearing to have that meaning can always be reinterpreted somehow to mean, "you owe us some money." It's quite amazing. I've heard it said that Americans have more than 30 different terms for "no charge" — and that all of them actually mean "some charge".

10. ### Dan T. said,

October 26, 2009 @ 4:33 pm

17. ### Ellen said,

October 26, 2009 @ 6:07 pm

I did not assume that "Complimentary High-speed Internet access on the lobby level" means wireless access on your own computer. There are other possibilities that could fit that. I did, though, assume that it meant no pay, and agree that if you have to pay to use it, it's not complimentary.

18. ### Ralph Hickok said,

October 26, 2009 @ 6:37 pm

I know that "complimentary" has come to mean "free of charge" in many contexts … but how did that every come about?

19. ### Andrew Philpot said,

October 26, 2009 @ 7:12 pm

I once bought a car stereo that was advertised in-store as featuring "free installation." I took my carton, went around to the installation area, and asked the person at the counter, "How much will the free installation cost?" The deadpan answer was "Thirty bucks". You see, there is this flimsy little bracket needed to make it fit into the dash… I like to think that the counter person and I shared an ironic, knowing moment regarding the whole idea of free=gratis=complimentary=not really, but perhaps I was the only one in on the joke.

20. ### George said,

October 26, 2009 @ 7:42 pm

@bfwebster and @Stephen Jones – Actually, if Hilton had used the word 'complementary' it would have been accurate. Lobby service complementing room service.

21. ### empty said,

October 26, 2009 @ 7:43 pm

Presented to you with our compliments.

Oh, and don't forget the Cottonelle breakfast.

22. ### Bobbie said,

October 26, 2009 @ 9:11 pm

So you got your money back (which means is was "free" to you after the assistant manager adjusted your bill)…. but everyone else still has to pay! I think there should be an adjustment in their billing procedure for everyone, not just for fussy linguists.

23. ### Craig Russell said,

October 26, 2009 @ 10:06 pm

My father likes to tell a story about my birth: as he and my mother were leaving the hospital and signing the final bill, they looked through the itemized charges and found the following: Gift Bag. My dad asked the person behind the desk what that meant. She said it was a pack they'd gotten containing a few diapers and other things. My dad asked, "How can it be a *gift* bag if you're charging me (insert amount that is too much to pay for a few diapers and other things in 1980 currency) for it?" The woman looked at him, looked at the bill, thought about it, and said, "But it doesn't say FREE gift bag."

On another note: Geoff, tell us about what you're recording for The Teaching Company. When I used to have to drive a further distance to work I would listen to their lectures all the time, and found them quite good. What's yours, and is there a discount for long-time Language Log users?

24. ### Jethro said,

October 26, 2009 @ 10:45 pm

How do they make sure that you put in your own room number when you sign up? If you use a bogus room number, then it will be free for you.

25. ### Neal Goldfarb said,

October 26, 2009 @ 10:45 pm

As far as I'm concerned, it's a damn shame that Geoff got them to give him access for free. If he had just paid the $9.99, he could have been the plaintiff in a big class action lawsuit against Hilton Hotels. The suit would have ultimately been resolved by a settlement under which the lawyers were paid a million bucks and the victimized class members received coupons giving them a$5 discount on their complimentary internet access during their next stay at a Hilton (two-night minimum stay required).

26. ### Chaon said,

October 26, 2009 @ 11:13 pm

"Oh, you are so naive."

Maybe I've had too much green tea this morning, but this strikes me as the greatest sentence ever in the history of great sentences.

27. ### Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

October 27, 2009 @ 2:26 am

This post reminds me of something on the website of math professor Doug Shaw. It's about linguistics, broadly enough interpreted, in the sense that it's about communication tricks that lead you to possibly suspect something has no charge when in fact it costs something. There's a neat little twist at the end (pun sorta intended).

http://www.dougshaw.com/silly/#texas

28. ### Fluxor said,

October 27, 2009 @ 3:02 am

Are you sure there wasn't a business centre on the lobby level that provided free (but wired) Internet access? Seems many hotels have such things, even those "nice" ones.

[The answer, Fluxor, is that there was indeed a Business Center; and it did have some spare Ethernet cables you could plug in and get Internet for free (the room had a horrible massively noisy air conditioning unit that could not be turned off, so I could only bear about an hour in there before I started getting hearing damage), but it was NOT on the lobby level, it was one floor above, and it did not have free wireless. The wireless was on the lobby level below, where "complimentary" had the problematic meaning we are discussing here. —GKP]

29. ### Richard Wein said,

October 27, 2009 @ 5:19 am

I can't resist playing devil's advocate and pointing out that the Hilton was using "complimentary" in the usual marketing sense of "included in the price of something else". In this case, lobby internet access was included in the price of bedroom internet access. If the deal had been what Geoff expected, it would have meant that lobby internet access was included in the price of the bedroom.

The problem is that this usage of "complimentary" involves an implicit reference to a something else in whose price the item is included, but that something else is often not explicitly stated. Based on past experience a reasonable person would assume that the something else in this case is the bedroom, but that needn't necessarily be the case. The Hilton's message was misleading, but not strictly speaking an erroneous use of the word "complimentary".

One might argue alternatively that "complimentary" means "provided to all our clients at no extra charge", in which case the Hilton's usage was erroneous. But I think it's quite common to use the term in a more restricted sense than this. For example, my health club has a premium membership plan with "complimentary" guest passes which must be paid for by standard members, so not all clients receive this benefit.

30. ### Tom Saylor said,

October 27, 2009 @ 6:47 am

Not very descriptivist of you. You need to understand and accept that words mean whatever people use them to mean. Insisting that words never be used to mean anything other than what you think they must mean is just so much prescriptivist poppycock. These objections to the hotel's use of "complimentary" sound like the gasps of disapproval heard from certain quarters whenever "begs the question" is applied to something other than a very particular kind of logical reasoning.

31. ### Sili said,

October 27, 2009 @ 6:52 am

What's yours, and is there a discount for long-time Language Log users?

Indeed!

If you just send proof of purchase (in triplicate) to 1 Language Log Plaza, you'll receive one (1) complimentary voucher giving you an 80% discount on your Language Log subscription.

32. ### DyspepticSceptic said,

October 27, 2009 @ 8:46 am

Check out the first half of BBC's "Fast Track" computer programme (currently on TV on BBC World as I type at 2045 hrs Beijing and Hong Kong time on 27 October) for some more on this and related topics. All hotels, etc., seem to be at it . . .

33. ### language hat said,

October 27, 2009 @ 9:21 am

I think it's possibly the result of someone making a mistake rather than intentionally misleading you.

You're clearly a kindly soul with a good heart, but I assure you that megacorporations like Hilton don't make mistakes like that. If you doubt me, think about the fact that, as others have said, this usage is routine at high-end hotels. Are they all randomly making the same "mistake"?

Not very descriptivist of you. You need to understand and accept that words mean whatever people use them to mean. Insisting that words never be used to mean anything other than what you think they must mean is just so much prescriptivist poppycock.

Your attempt at irony is tiresome and unfunny. What's next, are you going to point out that, despite championing bad English, the authors at Language Log continue to write in good English? Oh, snap!

October 27, 2009 @ 10:49 am

Good for you! I'm fed up with these hotel internet rip-offs too.

35. ### Nathan said,

October 27, 2009 @ 11:08 am

I've stayed at 3 hotels this year, and the WiFi has always been included. Being of modest means, I don't even consider the swanky places. But all 3 of the places I've stayed have also offered guests the use of a desktop computer on the ground floor with high-speed Internet access–also at no extra charge. That was my initial interpretation of "Complimentary High-speed Internet access on the lobby level".

Hilton's use of "complimentary" is of course nothing unusual to marketingspeak, which loves to present incidental facts as benefits to the customer (who would think a wireless access point you can connect to from your room would be unavailable in the lobby?). But it's interesting to discover that the ritzy hotels charge extra for what consumer-grade lodgings provide as part of the regular service. Does a "continental breakfast" cost extra too? How about toilet paper?

36. ### parse said,

October 27, 2009 @ 11:22 am

The company I work for supplies chocolates for hotels to use as turndown items.

When we sell items to customers who are going to re-sell them, we are not obliged to collect sales tax The state is only entitled to collect sales tax once, so if the retailer collects tax from the end user, the wholesaler does not need to collect it from the retailer.

To avoid incurring a charge for taxes on our invoices, the hotel must send us a form indicating the items are purchased for re-sale. Some hotels define the turndown chocolates as an item purchased by guests along with the lodging; we don't collect sales tax from them. Others define them as a gift that's given to guests who pay for lodging; those hotels get sales tax on their invoice.

So far as I know, the tax department feels either interpretation is correct. Apparently, in some hotels your chocolates are complimentary, and in others you purchased them without realizing it.

37. ### Dan T. said,

October 27, 2009 @ 1:29 pm

Airlines, like hotels, are getting into a phase where they're trying to charge extra for everything they can, like checking luggage, food and drinks, etc.; people are saying (in only a half-joking manner) that if this trend continues there is likely to be a charge to use the restrooms too. However, unlike the hotels, they seem more likely to tack on these charges for economy flyers, while first class flyers get more stuff included for free.

38. ### Charles P said,

October 27, 2009 @ 2:33 pm

I think it is not "going a semantic bridge too far", and not "marketingspeak", but a lie.

39. ### Assistant Village Idiot said,

October 27, 2009 @ 3:28 pm

From "West Side Story"

Everything free in America
For a small fee in America

40. ### Janice Huth Byer said,

October 27, 2009 @ 6:11 pm

Virginia 2005. My roommate in hospital grumbled to me about the food. Our nurse, overhearing, scolded, "You can't complain. Meals are free."

The hospital bill, to be sure, would, in due course, list a hefty daily prix fixe for "room and board". The fact that my insured roomie had missed a whole day's "board", owing to the length of her surgery, made the nurse's remark a kind of fib to the second power. What struck us both as a ludicrous, however, was the intent of the deception. Who said you can't complain if food is free?

The exchange at the time triggered in my medicated brain a scene from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, where our eponymous heroine, after being skipped over during the serving at a tea party, is asked if she'd like more.

"I've had nothing yet, so I can't take more," she says, annoyed. The Mad Hatter corrects her: "You mean you can't take less. It's very easy to take more than nothing."

41. ### jamessal said,

October 27, 2009 @ 6:44 pm

42. ### Arfnotz said,

October 27, 2009 @ 11:06 pm

Many but certainly not all "business" hotels in the US offer truly free internet in room. In my company required booking service an icon indicates if a hotel offers it, or free breakfast, health club, free parking, etc. I just pick the hotel that offers the amenities I plan to use.

And yeah, the luxury hotels ding you, and it ticks me off.

I've also heard of this, but never experienced it: There will be a bottle of wine or water with some outragious price tag on it, and an RFID tag as well. If you even MOVE the bottle, you get billed.

Travel horror stories – there's no end to them…

43. ### empty said,

October 28, 2009 @ 10:41 pm

"You can't complain. Meals are free."

Travel horror stories – there's no end to them…

The year, 1980-something. A cheap overnight flight from Europe on an obscure airline.

Flight attendant: How was your breakfast?
Self: Well, the eggs were like rubber.
FA: How about the orange juice?
Self: On a scale where this is Tang and this is really good OJ, it was way over here (indicating far beyond Tang).
[Next line delivered straight into my ear, after I'd dropped off into an uncomfortable sleep.]
FA: Ah, but you can't complain about the PRICE, can you !!!

44. ### Melanoman said,

October 29, 2009 @ 4:33 am

Self: On a scale where this is Tang and this is really good OJ, it was way over here (indicating far beyond Tang).This metaphor assumes that the relative ranking of Tang versus OJ is consistent and well known. If Tang were considered better than OJ, this would be high praise.

45. ### William Lockwood said,

October 29, 2009 @ 12:26 pm

On the other hand, when I imagined empty's orange-flavored drinks continuum, I imagined the airline's being both below Tang and off to one side, as if to indicate that it wasn't really all that orange-flavored to begin with, on top of being less than tasty.

46. ### Marc Naimark said,

October 31, 2009 @ 9:45 pm

http://www.slate.com/id/2135226/

Some economics theory on why certain hotels make you pay for WiFi and others don't.

[Well, Steven Landsburg discusses the problem of why some hotels charge for Internet and others don't, broadly in terms of theories in economics; but he ends up "There must be something I'm missing that makes popcorn essentially different from Internet access. I remain stumped." He doesn't offer any theory at all to explain the facts that we confront. Anyway, this is Language Log, not Economics Log. I merely raised the question of what "complimentary" means. And that turned out to be quite enough for now. —GKP]

47. ### TruePath said,

November 1, 2009 @ 4:22 pm

Richard Wein had the right idea and I think you are being a bit pedantic in your response.

Yes, it's true that complimentary doesn't literally mean "included in some other charge." Literally it means free. However, when a hotel says such and such is complimentary we all interpret them as addressing the hotel guests. Thus we wouldn't be surprised if purchasing a soda from the hotel vending machine didn't get you free wireless if you weren't a guest because we assume the statement about complimentary wireless is only directed to hotel guests.

In this case it's quite possible the poor description was caused by a mismatch between the context the author had in mind when they wrote it and the context in which people read it. The author may very well have sat down and thought, "How do I describe the features of our internet access package to potential internet purchasers." In that context it's totally reasonable to say "complimentary wireless in the lobby" meaning it's free for customers. Unfortunately, hotel guests assume when they read the description that they are being addressed as hotel guests not as prospective internet services customers.

To illustrate the point suppose you went down to the lobby at the hotel and asked, "Could you describe the 9.99 internet package to me." and the receptionist said blah blah, "and there is complimentary wireless access in the lobby." I think it would be perfectly clear what that meant.

48. ### Janice Huth Byer said,

November 2, 2009 @ 1:05 am

A tavern in London has obtained a trademark on "Almost Free Lunch".

Linked below is a photo of an excerpt from the menu that explains its inspiration in the American saloon tradition of offering a "free" lunch for the purchase of an early-hour alcoholic beverage. It seems the phrase "there's no free lunch" may have once been a temperance slogan.

http://www.thebountifulcow.co.uk/bountiful_cow_website_3_006.htm

49. ### Colin John said,

November 3, 2009 @ 5:22 am

I heard an ad on local radio a few years ago which said: “Barnsley Kitchens, …Free fitting; or discount for self-fit.” I nearly drove off the road.

50. ### Mark Liberman said,

November 3, 2009 @ 6:24 am

There's also "free as in credit report", discussed in today's NYT under the headline "A Free Credit Score Followed by a Monthly Bill".

51. ### Jing said,

November 3, 2009 @ 2:11 pm

The composer of the advertisement is certainly trying to play with words. It just doesn’t make any sense to interpret in the way that free internet access in the lobby is available only after you agree to register a paid internet service in your hotel room with $9.99. Is it complimentary or complementary? I mean, neither is sound to me. The apple analogy is such a strong and interesting argument that the assistant manager would have no way to argue back. I suppose the manager was thinking about fooling his guest again by playing the old trick, but didn’t expect someone like you to show up and give him a lesson. This is not just a false advertisement. It is a trick of the hotel that is ready to rip off its guest. The reason, as everybody knows, is likely that people who check in at expensive hotels like Hilton won’t be driven to cheaper hotels by a ten dollar daily fee. Not to mention those who travel on expense accounts, and don’t have to care about whether the money is spent wisely or not. Perhaps many other expensive hotels also charge the internet fee because of the expensive contract they get from the service provider? But I think they should be able to fix this problem and get out of this embarrassing situation soon. 52. ### J said, November 28, 2009 @ 10:58 am At the Renaissance Hotel in Toronto: "Renaissance Downtown offers its Internet equipped guests with a complimentary 3 step in room document printing service…" You can log in to the online document printing service, send your document… then go downstairs to the Business Center and pay 60 cents a page (I think) for your document. I didn't bring up the full linguistic point, but I did ask them if printing was complimentary… which at the Front Desk they said it was not. Perhaps there's been a policy shift that hasn't yet been reflected in their Guest Services book… but I actually think this is another example of the shifty language. In this case, I don't think it means "included in the cost of something else" (what would it be included in after all, but the cost of *paying for the pages you print*, making it rather directly *not* complimentary?), but rather, the "in-room document printing service" is complimentary. In other words, they don't charge you extra for sending the electrons representing your document from your room rather than sending those electrons from the Business Center itself. Of course, they had the good grace at the Front Desk to say it was *not* complimentary, meaning they recognized its plain-language meaning; their guest-services-book-writer, however, doesn't seem to. Blergh. 53. ### Fangzhou, Zhou said, August 29, 2012 @ 1:15 am Not a surprise. No matter what they say on their websites, I would always double check the extremely possible hidden or additional surcharges in advance. I come from China, when I was applying for VISA in Guangzhou, China, the hotel in which I just stayed for one night, Westin, would charge me 60RMB, which equals to almost$10, per hour, for internet only in my room while any other area in the hotel not included. And this was based on the initial bill for this room, \$250.
No breakfast.