Complement vs. Compliment: The Difference and How to Use Them

The words ‘compliment’ and ‘complement’ are often used interchangeably—mistakenly, might I add—but they have different meanings.

Compliment and complement are two words that often lead to confusion because they have slightly different meanings, origins, and uses.

What’s the difference between complement and compliment? It’s an easy question, a question whose answers are right here, in this post.

Not only will this article break down the differences between the two terms, but it’ll provide examples of how to use them correctly.

It’ll also cover the definitions of compliment and complement, where they come from, and how they’re used in a sentence.

complement vs. compliment the difference and how to use them

What Is The Difference Between Complement And Compliment?

What Is a Compliment?

The word ‘compliment’ means to praise or admire. A compliment is a sentence or phrase that is used to express admiration for someone’s words, actions, behavior, etc.

It can also be used as an expression of humble recognition or credit.

The word ‘compliment’ is said to have come from Latin, then Spanish, and was first used as an English word back in the mid-1600s.

What Is a Complement?

The ‘complement’ means something that completes another or is added to make something whole, embellish it, or make it perfect.

The word “complement” is usually used as a noun or verb to imply compatibility or completing something.

subject verb disagreement 1

Why are they confused?

Although there’s a difference in the meanings ‘compliment’ and ‘complement,’ they both have roots in the Latin word ‘complēmentum’ (‘genitive complēmentī’ (neut.) (that which fills up or completes)) with the Latin root “complēre,” meaning “to complete.”

Understanding the way these two words entered the English vocabulary makes their dissimilarity a bit clearer. The word compliment arrived in the English vocabulary using the Italian and Spanish routes before crossing France and finally coming into the English-speaking world. Its Spanish version meant “to be courteous” and “to perform what is due.”

The complement and compliment pair is among the many examples of words that are known as homophones—they have the same pronunciation, but different meanings or spellings. Therefore, it is not unexpected when there’s some sort of confusion now and again.

a list of homophones written down
A list of homophones is written down.

How They are Used

Compliment is used in the sense of praising or lauding someone for something they did, while complement refers to addition that completes or perfects. You would compliment someone on their performance, but you would say “a dress complements her figure well.”

Complement and complēre share a visible similarity and their uses are expectedly similar. Remembering this visual similarity helps recall the use of complement, and hence compliment.

Although complement translates to one thing, it comes in the form of various synonyms. For example, it could mean to make whole, make someone fulfilled, or conclude something.

It could also mean someone’s attributes are in alignment with their partner’s, like in this statement:

“They look good together, he complements her.”

woman riding on back of man
Woman riding on the back of the man.

The word ‘complement’ is also used in other technical contexts such as geometry, biology, medicine, logic, grammar, and the English language subject.

Complement and Compliment In a Sentence

Here are a few examples of compliment and complement in action:

Complement:

  1. I really like your shoes, they complement your outfit.
  2. You looked so handsome at the ball last night, your style complemented the fancy gown with your classic style.
  3. The company’s products complement one another well and make for a great customer experience.
  4. Her strawberry blonde hair complements her fair complexion and leafy green eyes beautifully.

Compliment

  1. She complimented him on his marathon win.
  2. The fans’ love is a greater compliment than winning awards.
  3. Send compliments to his boss.  
  4. “You’re terrific on the pitch today!” ( this statement is a compliment).

Complementary vs. Complimentary

When we say that things are complementary we imply that they make a set, can be used together, or match in some way.

complimentary color schemes are used in this room.
“Complementary” color schemes are used in this room.

“These colors are complementary and they embellish this room.”

On the other hand, we say something is complimentary, we’re trying that it costs nothing, a show of gratitude in some cases.  When a remark is complimentary, it is nothing but a flattering comment.

For example, “He received a complimentary from the organizers.”

Summary

Complement vs. Compliment: a pair that has and continues to cause a lot of confusion.

Yes, they are pronounced the same and it’s very common to see someone write a compliment instead of complement and vice versa.

This little confusion seems to is a perennial problem, even for native English speakers,  

But, the funny thing is, knowing the difference between the two words is just a matter of spending a few minutes.

The difference is obvious in their definitions as a ‘complement’ is something that makes something else whole in some way. And ‘compliment’ is a remark that expresses admiration and praise.

This pair is one of the reasons I recommend reading and expanding one’s vocabulary.

About Jessica Majewski

Jessica started off as an avid book reader. After reading one too many romance novels (really... is it ever really enough?), she decided to jump to the other side and started writing her own stories.

She now shares what she has learned (the good and the not so good) here at When You Write, hoping she can inspire more up and coming wordsmiths to take the leap and share their own stories with the world.