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Compliment or complement?

A lot of people get these two words confused. It’s easy to see why: they’re pronounced in the same way and have very similar spellings but they have completely different meanings.

If you compliment someone, you are expressing admiration for them, or praising them for something. Here are some examples from the Oxford English Corpus showing the correct use of this verb:

  • The airline thanked the passengers for their help and complimented the captain on his initiative.
  • Make a mental note of the colours you’re wearing whenever people compliment you on the way you look.
  • I must compliment all of our employees for their support and commitment this year.
  • Passers-by stopped to compliment him on his handiwork.
  • When you are complimented for something that you know was a team effort, don’t forget to give credit to the team.

If one thing complements another, each of the two separate items function or look better because they are together: they both contribute something that enhances or improves the overall effect. The following sentences all use the verb complement in the correct way:

  • The recipe was delicious and the wine complemented the food beautifully.
  • Architect Graham Morrison said the new development would complement the city centre’s existing historical features but not overwhelm them.
  • Cordelia was wearing a particularly flattering blue dress that complemented her complexion.
  • This new service is intended to complement existing facilities.
  • Each of the three Russian canvases is complemented by pictures on the same theme by one or more of the other artists.

Complement is related to the word complete and you might find this link helps you to remember which verb is which. If the meaning you want to convey has a sense of ‘completion’, by which two things combine to produce a good overall effect, choose the verb with the -e- spelling: complement.

Complimentary or complementary?

Unsurprisingly, the adjectives relating to compliment and complement also cause confusion. Complimentary has two meanings. It can mean ‘expressing admiration or praise’:

  • I have received many complimentary remarks from members of the audience.
  • The vast majority of our patients are extremely complimentary about the care they have received.

It can also mean ‘given or supplied free of charge’, as in the following sentences:

  • Complimentary light refreshments will be available.
  • Most theatres offer complimentary tickets if you review their show for the paper.
  • We offer a complimentary shuttle service to the airport and historic old town.
  • Guestrooms offer complimentary bottled water and fresh fruit daily.

It’s common to see complementary used in these sorts of contexts, but this is a mistake. For instance, both the following examples are using the wrong spelling:

X     There will be an opportunity to meet the artists and have a complementary glass of wine.
X     The winner will receive two complementary tickets to a performance of their choice.

Complementary should instead be used to describe things that combine in such a way as to enhance or emphasize each other’s good qualities:

  • They had different but complementary skills.
  • We view this proposal as complementary to existing policing services.
  • Interior design and architecture are two complementary professions.