Complement and Compliment

Commonly Confused Words

"Candor is a compliment," said author Peggy Noonan. "It implies equality. It's how true friends talk.”. (Grant Squibb/Getty Images)

The words complement and compliment are homophones: they sound alike but have different meanings.

Definitions

Complement means "something that completes or brings to perfection." 

A compliment is an expression of praise or an act that shows respect or approval.

Both words can function as either nouns or verbs.

Examples

  • "Arranged before the fireplace were a sofa and two wingback chairs, upholstered in colors to complement the carpet."
    (Jo Ann Simon, Love Once Again. Bell Bridge, 2014)
  • "The Treasurer interrupted to compliment Mrs. Landis on the quality of her refreshments."
    (John Updike, "Minutes of the Last Meeting." The Early Stories: 1953-1975. Random House, 2003)
  • "In essence, it would be a broadcast that was original, not a copy; it would be a complement to the local news; it would fill a national need; and, ultimately, it would be a compliment to the network news division."
    (Gene F. Jankowski and David C. Fuchs, Television Today and Tomorrow, 1995)
     

Usage Note

"Originally these two spellings were used interchangeably, but they have come to be distinguished from each other in modern times. Most of the time the word people intend is compliment: nice things said about someone ('She paid me the compliment of admiring the way I shined my shoes.'). Complement, much less common, has a number of meanings associated with matching or completing. Complements supplement each other, each adding something the others lack, so we can say 'Alice's love for entertaining and Mike's love for washing dishes complement each other.'"
(Paul Brians, Common Errors in English Usage, 2003)
 

Practice:

(a) "It made him feel shy and awkward when someone told him that his nose was good and his eyes mysterious. He did not know what to say when someone paid him a _____."
(W. Somerset Maugham, A Writer's Notebook, 1949)

(b) "This evening, she was wearing skintight black leggings, black leather flats, and a bronzy silk tunic with a flowing scarf, exactly the right _____ to her flaming hair."
(Susan Wittig Albert, Dean Man's Bones, 2005)

Answers to Practice Exercises: Complement and Compliment

(a) "It made him feel shy and awkward when someone told him that his nose was good and his eyes mysterious. He did not know what to say when someone paid him a compliment."
(W. Somerset Maugham, A Writer's Notebook, 1949)

(b) "This evening, she was wearing skintight black leggings, black leather flats, and a bronzy silk tunic with a flowing scarf, exactly the right complement to her flaming hair."
(Susan Wittig Albert, Dean Man's Bones, 2005)

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Complement and Compliment." ThoughtCo, Nov. 9, 2017, thoughtco.com/complement-and-compliment-1692723. Nordquist, Richard. (2017, November 9). Complement and Compliment. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/complement-and-compliment-1692723 Nordquist, Richard. "Complement and Compliment." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/complement-and-compliment-1692723 (accessed November 20, 2017).