The Difference Between ‘Compliment’ and ‘Complement’

Ever wondered what the difference between ‘compliment’ and ‘complement’ is? Wonder no more! Read this and hopefully afterwards you’ll be complimenting this article for complementing your knowledge!

Credit: daquellamanera. Flickr

A common word confusion I encounter frequently, especially online, is the peculiar mish-mashing of the definitions of ‘compliment’ and ‘complement’. If you’ve landed here because you’ve only just realised there was a difference between these two words,  you need not feel ashamed. Admittedly, it is easy to confuse the two. After all, they share 9 letters with each other, with only an ‘i’ or an ‘e’ to differentiate between them. Adding to the confusion, they’re both pronounced similarly. But however easy it may be to confuse these two words, they can’t be used interchangeably, and after reading this you will no longer have an excuse for doing so. Ready?

Let’s start with the word ‘compliment’, with an ‘i’. A compliment is something nice that is said by one person to another. For instance, ‘I like your hair’ is a compliment. ‘Those are some rad socks’ is another, if someone is wearing a particularly good pair of socks.

Meanwhile, ‘complement’ with an ‘e’ is an entirely different kettle of fish. To put it simply, complementing something means that you’re adding something to enhance it or complete it. Let’s say you’re eating a meat pie. Salivating? Me too. But let’s not get distracted. So, you’re eating a meat pie, and you douse it in tomato sauce. Why? Because the tomato sauce complements the flavour of the meat pie. ‘Complement’ with an ‘e’ is being used here because the sauce is enhancing the flavour of the pie and making it better. Completing it, you could say. The reason why ‘compliment’ with an ‘i’ isn’t being used is because the sauce isn’t complimenting the pie. It’s not saying ‘Hey, you taste pretty good!’

Credit: diongillard, Flickr

Though that isn’t to say that it DOESN’T taste pretty good.

Confusion also arises with the words ‘complimentary’ and ‘complementary’. A similar rule applies: ‘complimentary’ with an ‘i’ is used when describing something that has been said that is nice. For instance, a husband may make complimentary comments about how his wife looks. But complementary with an ‘e’ can only be used when something is adding to or completing something. For example, the wife may turn to her husband and tell him ‘That tie you’re wearing is really complementary. It looks great with that shirt’. Ironically, if she were to say this, she would also be complimenting him.

A further complication is added with the additional definition of ‘complimentary’ meaning free or a gift. For instance, you may go to a restaurant where the waiter brings a complimentary basket of bread out to the table. This means the bread is free; you don’t have to pay for it. However, only ‘complimentary’ with an ‘i’ works in this context.

So there you go. Two very different words after all, aren’t they? If you need some help to remember which is which, just remember: ‘Compliment’ with an ‘i’ is something nIce I can say. ‘Complement’ with an ‘e’ is something which Enhances.

To congratulate you for making it this far, here’s a rather relevant joke. It’s also a test! If you laugh, it means you’ve successfully understood and absorbed the information in this article:

A man in a bar is enjoying his drink when he hears a voice say ‘You look great!’ He looks around, but there is nobody near him. He hears the voice again: ‘No, really, you look just terrific!’ Again he looks around. Nobody. A few minutes pass, and again he hears the voice: ‘Is that a new shirt or something? Because you look absolutely stunning!’ At this point the man realizes that the voice is coming from a dish of nuts on the bar. ‘Hey,’ the man calls to the bartender. ‘What’s with these nuts?’ ‘Oh,’ the bartender answers. ‘They’re complimentary.’


  •  ‘Compliment’ with an ‘i’ is used when saying something nice about someone.
  •  ‘Complement’ with an ‘e’ is used when something enhances or completes something else.
  •  ‘Complimentary’ with an ‘i’ can be used to describe something that is free, such as a complimentary gift.

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