Word Choice: Compliment vs. Complement
  • 3-minute read
  • 30th May 2016

Word Choice: Compliment vs. Complement

Tom Selleck has beautiful eyes. We know that’s a little weird for an opening sentence in a proofreading blogpost, but we needed to illustrate what a “compliment” is. And partly we’re hoping Tom Selleck googles himself and reads this. We love Tom Selleck.

Just look at that gorgeous specimen.

Anyway, back to work. Today we’re discussing the difference between “compliment” and “complement.” Given their similarity in spelling and pronunciation, it’s understandable that these terms are confused sometimes.

Yet each word has a distinct meaning, so it’s important to use them properly in your written work.

Compliment/Complimentary

As indicated above, a “compliment” is an expression of praise or approval:

When I met Tom Selleck, I complimented him on his bushy mustache.

He shampoos it every day. [Photo: Alan Light]
This sense of “compliment” can be used either as a noun when referring to the praise itself, or as a verb when referring to the act of expressing praise.

Meanwhile, the adjective “complimentary” has two meanings. One is to describe something or someone as having expressed admiration:

After we were done talking, Tom Selleck thanked me for being complimentary.

The other is to describe something as having been provided without charge or as a courtesy:

I offered Tom Selleck the complimentary chocolate from my hotel room, but he declined.

Complement/Complementary

The verb “complement” means to “add to” or “enhance” something by making it more complete or effective:

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Tom Selleck’s sunglasses perfectly complement his Hawaiian shirt.

Something which “complements” something else in this way can be described as a “complement.”

Sometimes “complement” is also used as a noun meaning “the number of something required for a full set”:

I wanted to go to Tom Selleck’s party, but he said they had a full complement of guests.

The adjective “complementary” has the sense of “adding to” or “enhancing” something, and is used when describing two things that are useful or attractive together:

The complementary combination of good looks and charisma made Tom Selleck one of the most popular TV actors of the 1980s.

Also, he was in Three Men and a Baby. [Photo: Georges Biard]

Compliment or Complement?

Whether or not you’re intending to praise Tom Selleck, it’s essential to know the difference between “compliment” and “complement.” Remember:

Compliment = Praise

Complement = Add to/make complete

The exception here is when “complimentary” means “free” or “as a courtesy,” as this isn’t directly related to praise. But as long as you can remember this general rule, you should be able to avoid confusions in your written work.

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