Compliment vs Complement: What’s the difference?

The two words ‘compliment’ and ‘complement’ can often be confusing for those not sure of their differences, and not being aware of when to use either of them, can cause a writer to doubt his or her work, despite there not being anything wrong with it.

This can also pose a problem for readers who are not so familiar with the English language and hence, may be puzzled by a word that is spelled differently from what they were expecting.

So, confused about where and when to use compliment vs complement? Don’t worry, this post will help you clarify!

The first thing to keep in mind is that compliment and complement are homophones.

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WHAT ARE HOMOPHONES?

Let’s begin by understanding what homophones are.  It’s a term in the English language that refers to words having the same pronunciation but completely different spellings and/or meanings. So, now that you know that compliment and complement are simply words that sound the same but have different meanings and spellings, let’s dig into the individual meanings and usage of compliment vs complement.

 UNDERSTANDING COMPLIMENT

Compliment, in the English language, means praising a person by literally complimenting them, i.e., saying something nice about them. It can be used as a verb or a noun, depending upon the requirement and structure of the sentence.

  • One of the best moments from my wedding was when my husband saw my wedding dress for the first time. His expression was better than any of the compliments that were said by the guests and our families.
  • She told me that I looked pretty today and I only realised that it was a backhanded compliment quite a while later.

 USING COMPLIMENT IN A SENTENCE

As we’ve seen, compliment may be used both as a noun or a verb, depending upon the sentence it is being used in. It refers to the practice of paying someone a compliment, i.e., saying something positive about a person’s accomplishments, characteristics, or belongings.

The word Compliment may have multiple derivatives such as complimentary. Complimentary means an expression of praise or something that is given free of charge as an accompaniment to another service/thing.

Examples of usage of compliment as a Noun:

  • Sammy was astonished by the number of compliments that he received on posting his first poem on Facebook.
  • Leila was great at her job as a hostess because she knew just what to say to each guest, peppering them with questions about their lives and paying them compliments frequently.

Instances of using compliment as a Verb:

  • I could hardly believe my eyes and ears when my boss complimented my work ethic as he hardly ever offers any positive reinforcement in the office.
  • Adam and Kathy were wonderful parents, reinforcing their kids’ good habits by constantly praising and complimenting them. Their kids are going to grow up to become great people.

Using compliment in Idioms & Metaphors:

There are several instances of idioms and metaphors that make use of ‘compliment’. Some of the commonly used ones are as follows:

  • Offering a back-handed compliment: to insult someone under the disguise of praising them.

 For instance: My boss was a male chauvinist of the first order as he was often saying things like – “You’ve performed really well this quarter, for a mere woman.” It was probably the reason he was forced to depart from the organisation in less than a year after joining it.

  • Fishing for a compliment: to look for and court compliments from others.

For instance: Our senior colleague is always fishing for compliments for his daughter’s achievements, as he is extremely proud of all that she has accomplished in life. None of us have the heart to disappoint him, so we indulge his whims as well as we can. 

  • Returning a compliment: to simply offer a compliment a person who complimented you first.

 

For instance: My Aunt told me that my hair always looked pretty and I returned the compliment by telling her that it was due to the good genes from my family. She laughed upon hearing that and gave me a tight hug.

UNDERSTANDING THE MEANING OF COMPLEMENT

Let’s move on to the second part of compliment vs complement.

As was the case with ‘compliment’, ‘complement’ can also be used as both a noun or a verb, depending upon the use case. Complement means something that either completes something else, or goes extremely well with another existing thing.

For instance, you can use the word in a sentence in the following ways: –

  • No matter what anyone says, jam is complements the taste of toasted bread perfectly. I dare cheese lovers to denounce this!
  • The perfect couples, aka ‘made in heaven pairs’ are ones where each partner is the only true complement for the other.

USING COMPLEMENT IN A SENTENCE

As a Noun:

  • Her silent, serene countenance was the perfect complement to his vivacious nature. They really were a match made in heaven!
  • This Persian rug is a nice complement to the Arabian style décor of your room. I wish you could procure one of these for me too.
  • The friendly environment of the organisation was the perfect complement to the work done by the people in it.
  • I wish I had known him when I was younger. It seems like his nature would have been the perfect complement for mine.

As a Verb, it can be used to indicate something that combines well with another thing, or to add another thing to an existing thing:

  • She chose the terracotta jewellery to complement her image as an environment activist and it paid off, judging by the amount of praise she received over it.
  • I wish I had chosen to complement the existing practices in the organisation, rather than working to replace them completely, as it seems to be a bottomless cavern of unlimited challenges.
  • Ah, young love! What is teenage without a little puppy love to complement it?
  • My husband won over my heart completely when he told me that we complement each other perfectly.

Using complement in Idioms & Metaphors:

One common expression that makes use of ‘complement’ in the English language is as follows:

  • a full complement: refers to a complete set of something

 

For instance: The organisation Adam works for is perfect as it offers a full complement of non-monetary employment benefits, such as a generous medical insurance, etc.

As is probably clear from the example above, this expression is mostly used in formal situations, such as in hospitality, corporate communication, and so on.

REMEMBERING THE RIGHT USAGE OF COMPLIMENT VS. COMPLEMENT

You’re probably wondering how you can ensure that you don’t mix up compliment vs complement in the future. There’s a simple solution. If you focus on the spelling, you’ll find that the main difference between these two words is that ‘compliment’ has an I in the middle, whereas ‘complement’ contains an e in the middle. So, if you form a relationship with the difference of the vowel in the middle of each word, it can act as a helpful mnemonic device for you in the future.

Do you like compliments? Yes, you probably do! And that’s all you need to remember to get this word and its usage right. Simply try to remember the phrase – ‘I like compliments.’ Let the ‘I’ in the sentence and the sentiment of the expression remind you that ‘compliment’ also comes with an ‘I’.

If you want to go about it the other way around by remembering a relation to ‘complement’ instead, all you need to focus on is the word itself. ‘Complement’ begins with ‘comple’, which should immediately remind you of the word, ‘complete’. And since, ‘complement’ literally means ‘to complete’, the spelling of this word can simply help you remember both the meaning of the word and how to use it in a sentence.

QUIZ: COMPLEMENT VS COMPLIMENT

Let’s test if you’re clear on the usage of compliment vs complement with a little pop quiz.

Instructions to follow: Fill in the blank with the correct word, compliment / complement in the correct form.

1.     Let me just say that beer is not a good ________________ to creamy alfredo pasta.

2.     It’s the ultimate _____________ as a writer to have your work discussed even 200 years after you’ve taken your last breath. This is probably what you call leaving a legacy behind.

3.     I am always surprised when I get _____________________ on my height. I don’t get why it’s such a big deal as everyone in my family has always been fairly tall, so it’s never felt like something special.

4.     The tea is cold, which is tolerable. But it’s not sweet and that just won’t do! I wish I had some jam to _______________ it perfectly.

5.     I’ve always felt that rock music is the perfect _____________ for the restlessness in my soul.

6.     The hotel we’re staying at offers a full _____________ of services required to make a guest’s stay extremely convenient.

7.     Adam’s always known that the way to Kathy’s heart is by ________________ her delicious cooking, especially since she learned it just for him.

All done? Check the end of the page for the answers.

ARTICLE SUMMARY

Compliment vs complement: Despite sharing the same pronunciation and the same root word (a Latin word which means to complete), these words are completely different, holding different meanings and cannot be substituted for each other under any circumstances. One may focus on the difference in the spelling to create a helpful mnemonic trick to remember when to use which of them.

  • Compliment simply means an expression of praise.
  • Complement refers to a thing that either completes something else, or goes extremely well with another existing thing.

In short, remember ‘I love compliments’ to key in with the ‘I’ in the middle of the word, while ‘complement’ begins with ‘comple’, which should automatically remind of ‘complete’ and hence, reiterate its meaning and usage.

Answers to the Quiz

1.     complement
2.     compliment
3.     compliments
4.     complement
5.     complement
6.     complement
7.     complimenting