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Compliment vs. Complement (Definition & Examples)

A compliment is an expression of flattery or admiration. A complement is "a thing that completes or brings to perfection".

Complement/compliment in text conversation.
Complement/compliment in text conversation.



Compliment vs. complement

If someone says you look nice, do you return the compliment or complement? If the difference between compliment and complement perplexes you, then keep reading . . . it need not elude you any longer.



When to use compliment vs. complement

Despite being a mere letter apart and sounding the same, “compliment” and “complement” are two different words that are not interchangeable.


Both complement and compliment have noun, verb and adjective forms, which makes them a slightly trickier pair of homophones; (i.e., words that sound the same but mean different things).


Examples withcompliment Examples with complement
She received several compliments on her speech.This vegetable’s sweetness is a perfect complement to heavier foods.



Forms of the word compliment vs. complement

If you give someone a compliment, or vice versa, this means you said something nice or admiring to someone, and is the verb form of the word. As an example: she complimented me on my English (past tense).


As a noun, compliment refers to the comment or expression of praise that’s given, (“please don’t take it as an offence, I meant it as a compliment!“)


Forms of compliment
[noun] My compliments to the chef!
[verb] She complimented him on his excellent German.
[adjective] She was happy to receive complimentary feedback on her essay.



Word forms of “complement”

Complement as a verb describes improving or enhancing something else by combining with it. For example, “we need players on the team that will complement each others strengths and weaknesses“.


As a noun, a complement refers to whichever thing enhances or improves (read: completes) what it’s added to or made to be a part of.


Forms of complement
[noun] This shade beautifully complements the color of your eyes.
[verb] Her vibrant personality really complements his laid back demeanour.
[adjective] We need managers with unique but complementary skills.



Complimentary vs. complementary

As an adjective, complimentary can mean that something is free of charge; as in, “The hotel offers complimentary breakfast“. Also, something that’s complimentary (about or towards something) describes a comment as being a compliment; as in “She had some very complimentary remarks about my writing”.


Complementary as an adjective is similar to its verb/noun form and describes something (people or things) coming together to form a useful or improved combination, (whether of skills, qualities or aesthetically). For example, “The board members have different but complementary backgrounds”.


Examples withcomplimentaryExamples with complementary
After one or two complimentary remarks about her hosts, she got to the main part of her speech.We provide a service that is essentially complementary to that of the banks.



The history of compliment and complement

Complement and compliment share an origin and come from the same Latin word, complere, “fill up”. Complement is still true to its original Latin meaning, “to fill up, finish, suit”. Compliment, on the other hand, has strayed from its etymological definition and now refers to, “pay a compliment to, flatter or gratify by expression of admiration, respect, etc.”


To remember the difference, think of “complement” as short for “complete“, meaning something that completes or perfects something else.



Synonyms of compliment

  • admiration
  • adulation
  • applause
  • courtesy
  • homage
  • acclaim
  • appreciation
  • approval
  • encomium (a formal expression of high praise)

Synonyms of complement

  • accompaniment
  • completion
  • counterpart
  • balance
  • addition
  • enhancement
  • enrichment
  • supplement
  • correlative
  • augmentation



Phrases with compliment

phrasemeaning
a backhanded or left-handed complimentAn insult that’s expressed as praise.
a compliment sandwichCriticism or feedback that’s sandwiched between comments of praise.
to return the compliment Literally, to say something nice to someone after they’ve praised you.
compliments of the house Said from a merchant or establishment when they offer something free to guests.
to fish for compliments To attempt to elicit praise from someone.



Origin of compliment

1610s, “pay a compliment to, flatter or gratify by expression of admiration, respect, etc.,” from French complimenter, from compliment (see compliment (n.)). By 1690s as “manifest kindness or regard for by a gift or favor.”

Origin of complement

Late 14c., “means of completing; that which completes; what is needed to complete or fill up,” from Old French compliement “accomplishment, fulfillment” (14c., Modern French complément), from Latin complementum “that which fills up or completes,” from complere “fill up”.

Check out other commonly confused words

Commonly misused wordsUK English vs. US English
former vs. latterburned or burnt?
bear with vs. bare withcolor or colour?
breathe or breathfavorite vs. favourite
assure or ensure?smelled or smelt?
effect vs. affectgray or grey?
elude or alludefavor vs. favour
it’s or itsanalyze or analyse?

Sources  

  1. Harper, Douglas. “Etymology of compliment.” Online Etymology Dictionary, https://www.etymonline.com/word/compliment. Accessed 19 August, 2023.
  2. Harper, Douglas. “Etymology of complement.” Online Etymology Dictionary, https://www.etymonline.com/word/complement. Accessed 19 August, 2023.
  3. Harper, Douglas. “Etymology of complement.” Online Etymology Dictionary, https://www.etymonline.com/word/complement. Accessed 19 August, 2023.
  4. “Compliment.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/compliment. Accessed 19 Aug. 2023.
  5. “Compliment.” Farlex Dictionary of Idioms. 2015. Farlex, Inc 4 Nov. 2023 https://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/compliment

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