When it comes to commonly misused and confused words, complement and compliment confuse many writers.
It’s no wonder these two words are easily mixed up. The words are homophones, or words that sound the same but have different meanings.
Not only that, they are spelled almost the same, except for that pesky “e” and “i” in the middle.
So how can you tell the difference?
Well, do you want to receive a complement on your new outfit, or a compliment? As you strive to become a better writer and avoid common writing mistakes, understanding the difference between complement and compliment is critical.
Interestingly, complement and compliment originally had shared meanings. Language is always evolving, and today the two words have different meanings.
So are you paying someone a complement or a compliment? Does that shirt complement or compliment your outfit?
Once you get the meaning down, the complement vs compliment question won’t trip you up.
Here’s a closer look at the meaning of the words and their common uses to help you become a more confident writer.
What Do You Mean by Complement?
Complement with an “e” is the older version of the words. It comes from the Latin word complēmentum, which means “something that completes.” It’s the older of the two terms and originated in the 1300s.
When you say something “complements” something else, you are saying that it completes, enhances, or perfects it. So use complement when writing:
The shirt complemented her eyes.
Complement and its variations also pop up in other scenarios. In math, complementary angles are angles that add up to 90 degrees. They “complement” each other to create a right angle.
In art, complementary colors sit across from each other on the color wheel. Artists know complementing colors work well together. They “complement” each other by enhancing through pleasing contrast.
What Do You Mean by Compliment?
Compliment with an “i” comes from the 1600s and the Spanish word complimiento. The word also has a base in the Latin word complēmentum, which is one reason the two create so much confusion.
When used as a noun, compliment means “a word of praise or commendation.” When used as a verb, compliment means “to express praise or admiration.” When you pay someone a compliment, you tell them what you appreciate about them or their efforts.
Compliment can also refer to something that you get for free, as in “complimentary.” When you dine in a Mexican restaurant and chips and salsa are served, you have a “complimentary” appetizer.
What Is the Difference Between Complement vs Compliment?
So what’s the difference between complement and compliment, and how can you keep the two separate?
When something “complements” another, it completes it. Complete and complement both have the vowel “e” in the middle. This little trick helps you to keep the two separate in your mind.
How Do You Use Complement and Compliment in Sentences?
Now that you have an understanding of the origin and meaning of the two words, looking at some examples will help further solidify the meanings in your mind.
Using Complement as a Noun
Both complement and compliment have noun uses. When used as a noun, complement means “something that completes.” In everyday situations, this might look like:
That wine was the perfect complement to the steak.
The husband and wife had personalities that were the right complement to each other.
The noun use of complement also comes up in science, math, and grammar. In grammar, the predicate of the sentence is the “complement.” This is the part that describes the subject or direct object.
In math, a complement is something that completes something else. This shows up most often in angles that are complements, because they add up to 90 degrees.
In science, the complement system is the series of proteins that circulate in the blood and match antibodies to “complete” them.
Using Complement as a Verb
Complement is more commonly used as a verb to complete. You might say:
The blazer complements her dress nicely.
The man’s quiet demeanor complements his wife’s outgoing personality nicely.
In each of these, the word complement shows two items complete each other well.
Using Compliment as a Noun
When compliment is a noun, it means a statement of praise or admiration. Here are some examples:
He gave his girlfriend a compliment on her new haircut.
The compliment brought a blush to her face.
One common use of the word compliment is in the object of an implied prepositional phrase. Consider this example:
I received a free night’s stay compliments of the hotel’s owner after finding a roach in my room.
In this sentence, “compliments of the hotel’s owner” implies the preposition “with.” It would also be correct to say:
I received a free night’s stay with the compliments of the hotel’s owner after finding a roach in my room.
Thus, the word “compliments” is a noun used as an object of the implied preposition.
Using Compliment as a Verb
Compliment can also be used as a verb. You can choose to compliment someone by giving them a statement of appreciation. So saying “I complimented her with a compliment on her hard work” would be grammatically correct, though wordy.
Some examples of compliment used as a verb include:
Compliment your children often, and they will rise to the occasion.
He complimented his employee on a job well done.
In this case, the giving of a compliment uses the same word as a verb instead of a noun.
Using Compliment as a Modifier
Versions of compliment also get used as modifiers at times, describing something that’s free. You can say:
I enjoyed the complimentary samples at Costco.
In this sentence, the pastries and bites of pasta aren’t telling you that you are wearing a nice shirt. They are something you can eat free of charge, making complimentary an adjective describing samples.
The Bottom Line – Using Complement vs Compliment Correctly
If the meaning is to complete something, either two parts of a whole or to make unconnected things look connected, then use complement. In math, science, art, and grammar terms, use complement. Using the “e” to complete will make it easier to remember the correct word.
On the other hand, if you’re paying someone praise or thanks, or if you’re referring to something given for free, use compliment.
To remember this, give yourself a compliment. Say “I am so smart!” Notice what letter the compliment starts with? The “I” in the compliment can remind you of the “i” in the accurate word.
Improve Your Writing by Mastering Tricky Words
Learning the difference between common homophones and using them correctly is a key to becoming a strong writer. When you master complement and compliment, you can use the words with ease, and your writing improves.
Do you want even more tips to spruce up your writing?
Get your 101 writing prompts today
Need help getting started writing? Use these proven writing prompts. I'll also send you practical writing advice and more as part of my newsletter.