Compliment vs. Complement: How To Pick The Right Word


WATCH: When Do We Use Compliment Vs. Complement?

Compliment and complement are commonly confused terms because they’re pronounced alike and originally shared some meanings.

But over time, they’ve become separate words with entirely different definitions.

What does complement mean?

Complement with an E is the older of the two terms. Its noun sense has been around in English since the 1300s.

The term derives from the Latin complēmentum, meaning “something that completes.” So, that means if something complements something else, it completes it, enhances it, or makes it perfect.

A shirt can complement the color of someone’s eyes, or a wine can complement a meal. When we talk about complementary angles, or complementary colors, it’s this sense of complement that is being used. Complementary angles are two angles that add up to produce a 90° angle. Complementary colors are colors that are directly across from each other on the color wheel, and they enhance each other by their contrast, such as red and green, purple and yellow, and blue and orange.

What does compliment mean?

Compliment with an I is from the mid-1600s. It came to English from the Spanish cumplimiento. But, the real confusion comes from the fact that compliment (with an I) ultimately derives from the same Latin root as complement (with an E), complēmentum, and that accounts for some of the early overlap in meaning.

The noun form of compliment means “an expression of praise, commendation, or admiration,” and the verb means, “to praise or express admiration for someone.”

You can pay someone a compliment, or compliment someone on a job well done. People sometimes use the phrase compliments to the chef after enjoying a good meal.

Something that is complimentary is free, for examples, airlines offer complimentary sodas on flights.

So how do you keep these two straight? Just remember that if something complements something, it completes it.

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