Learn English

A complement of compliments

© iStockphoto
Written by Stan Carey

The words compliment and complement, both of which can be nouns or verbs, cause a lot of confusion, as do the adjectives complimentary and complementary. Even experienced and native speakers of English often mix them up. So how do you know which spelling to use? This post teases apart the words’ meanings and shows you how to remember which is which.

If you already know all the differences, then I compliment you – I pay you a compliment (‘something nice that you say to praise someone’). That’s our first mnemonic: the ‘I’ in those clauses matches the ‘i’ in the middle of the word. Think of its use in the first person: I pay you a compliment. I take the compliment. I compliment you on your win. Associating compliment with a word like win, or a synonym like praise, is another way to remember the ‘i’.

Complement probably gives people more difficulty. Its meaning is related to complete, with which it shares the first six letters – including that ‘e’ in the middle, which is our next mnemonic. Macmillan Dictionary’s entry for the verb, sense 1, has the sample line: ‘The plants are chosen to complement each other’, and for sense 2: ‘This project is intended to complement, not replace, local authority programmes.’ Both convey the sense of something being completed – or supplemented, which, with its medial ‘e’, reinforces the mnemonic.

The noun complement has similar meanings. In the sample line ‘Our sauces are the perfect complement to any meal’, the idea is that the sauces complete or supplement the meal; ‘We already have our full complement of workers’ means that all the workers are there – the complete set. Just think of complete or supplement when this is the sense you want, and you’ll know which spelling to use.

The adjectives generally occupy similar semantic spaces. Things that are complementary combine well – they complete or supplement one another. Before a walk, I check the sky and a weather app: the two steps complement one another. The word also commonly appears in complementary medicine, a term that, unlike alternative medicine, suggests treatment alongside evidence-based practices, not as a substitute for them.

Complimentary, as you’d expect, has a meaning related to compliment. If I’m saying nice things about someone or something, then I am being complimentary. Again, our original mnemonic works. But the primary sense of complimentary is different: it describes something given for free (when it would usually cost something). If your friend is a singer, they may give you complimentary tickets to their show. Look at the vowels in tickets: ‘i’ and ‘e’. They’ll guide you to the correct vowels in the adjective.

If you commit these mnemonics to memory, or devise your own, they will complement each other, and you can compliment yourself on your spelling success.


About the author


Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.

Leave a Comment