Compliment vs. Complement

Riley Thompson Manning

“Complement” and “compliment” are easy to confuse. In fact, they come from the same Latin word, “complementum” which means “something that completes.” However, “complement” came to its meaning through English, while “compliment” evolved through Spanish, Italian, and French use before coming into English.

Over time, though, these words have distinguished themselves from one another. It’s important to know the difference yourself, because mistakenly using one for the other will slip by most spellchecking software.

When to use Compliment

“Compliment” can be used as a noun or a verb to mean “an expression of praise.” Think of a compliment as a gift or a present. It’s simply saying something is good in some way.

  • John paid Suzy a nice compliment on her new dress.
  • The piano instructor complimented Mark on his improvement.
  • Her compliment completely turned my day around.

In sentence one, note that “compliment” is the object of the verb “paid.” “Compliment” is often paired with “paid.” In the second sentence, “complimented” functions as a verb. In sentence three, “compliment” is a noun functioning as the subject of the sentence.

You may notice that people compliment things or other people. A thing cannot compliment or pay a compliment to a person or another thing.

There is one exception: When drinks, snacks, or other amenities are offered for free by, say, hotels or airplanes, they are “complimentary.”

When to use “Complement”

Of the two, “complement” is closer to in meaning to its Latin root. Remember, the sense of this word is one of enhancing or completing, not of praising.

Also, it takes two to complement. One thing must complement another thing, when being used as a verb.

  • Suzy’s shoes complemented her dress.
  • Mark is shopping for the perfect wine to complement the lasagna he’s making for dinner tonight.
  • The shades of blue and green complement each other nicely in Van Gogh’s Starry Night.

In the first sentence, Suzy’s shoes enhance the effect of her dress. In sentence two, the taste of the wine needs to fit with the taste of the lasagna. In the third sentence, the shades of blue and shades of green might be nice on their own, but together, they look even better. They complement each other.

Notice, objects complement other objects in these sentences. It’s rare for a person to “complement” something or someone.

Pop Quiz

Here are a few sentences to check your understanding.

  1. That shirt really (compliments, complements) your eyes.
  2. The prince paid me such a high (compliment, complement), I found myself speechless.
  3. My mother told me not to go out with a boy just because he flatters and (compliments, complements) me all the time.
  4. The wall of exposed brick is a nice (compliment, complement) to the apartment’s antique floors.
  5. As a couple, Ron and Jenny’s personalities (compliment, complement) each other well.
  6. A simple (compliment, complement) can be the best part of a person’s day.
  7. One the camping trip, John looked very rugged—and I mean that as a (compliment, complement).
  8. The best poems are written in such a way that their forms (compliment, complement) their content.
  9. Knoxville High School’s principal (complimented, complemented) all students who made the honor roll.
  10. The frame on that photo is garish and doesn’t (compliment, complement) the photo at all.

Answers: 1. complements, 2. compliment, 3. compliments, 4. complement, 5. complement, 6. compliment, 7. compliment, 8. complement, 9. complimented, 10. complement.