Compliment or Complement?


Since I’ve been talking about sentence complements recently, I thought this would be a good time to address the common confusion over compliment and complement.

I still remember only discovering these were different words (with different spellings) on a college English paper. I had used compliment when I meant complement and my professor made some snarky red-ink comment. I even looked up complement in the dictionary to make sure he wasn’t just messing with me.

He wasn’t. Now, let’s make sure you get this straight.

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Good old Merriam-Webster defines a compliment as “an expression of esteem, respect, affection, or admiration; especially : an admiring remark”. When I say, “That trench coat really brings out the gray of your eyes,” I am complimenting you. I am offering you a compliment. Or, as the idiom goes, I am paying you a compliment (Weird, right? Does that mean you now have to pay me back?)

Compliment comes from the Latin complir, meaning to be courteous. Its verb form to compliment is transitive, meaning it requires an object. You have to compliment something, as in, “She complimented me on my impressive knuckle-cracking skills.”

As pointed out in Daily Writing Tips, in the plural, compliments can also mean best wishes. It’s used that way sometimes to close letters.

The adjective version of compliment is complimentary, as in “The newspaper review of my toenail-clipping mosaic was very complimentary.” But complimentary also has an unrelated but equally common definition. It often means free or without charge, as in “Buy three new cement mixers and the fourth is complimentary.”

Confusion between these definitions of complimentary is the idea behind this terrible old joke:

     A guy walks into a bar and sits down. Other than the bartender, there’s no one else in the place. Suddenly, he hears a voice that says, “Nice suit.” He looks around and doesn’t see anyone, and the bartender looks busy washing some glasses. A little while later the same voice says, “Nice Tie.” The guy looks around again, confused. Once again, the voice says, “Nice haircut.”

“Excuse me,” he says to the bartender. Are you talking to me?

“No,” replies the bartender, “it was probably the peanuts. They’re complimentary.”


Even though compliment and complement are homophonic (pronounced the same), they come from different roots. Complement comes from the Latin complementum, the same word from which we get complete. In fact, the verb complement means to fill up or complete. It can also mean to add to in order to improve or make perfect. As a noun, it means something that completes or makes perfect.

We often use complement with food and fashion. The right sauce complements seafood and the right shoes complement an outfit. If you’ve read my recent blogs, you’ll know that complement is also used in grammar to refer to the words necessary to complete the subject or predicate of a sentence.

That means that the verb complement, which is also transitive, always needs a direct object, which, as you know, is one of the five types of complements.

Al gave me a nice compliment when he said the eye-patch complemented my Pirate costume.


Care to leave a compliment in the comment section below?


About the Author

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

  1. Diane

    Thank you! I love your weekly newsletter.

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko10-31-2012

      Great! The weekly email subscription/newsletter is a convenient way to keep up with the blog (without having to check it everyday). I’m glad to hear you are enjoying it Diane. Thanks for taking a moment to comment.

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