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?