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Commonly Confused:

Complement and Compliment

Today’s commonly confused pair is actually not so commonly confused, it just happened to be a pair I saw in something I was working on.  I’m a total word nerd, so I like understanding why we use certain words in one circumstance and certain words in another.  So I researched complement/complementary and compliment/complimentary.

According to Merriam-Webster:


Noun—Something that fills up or completes, such as:

  • something that fills out and makes perfect;  a completing or consummating part, integral, or component.
  • the quantity or number required to fill a thing or make it complete; full allowance.
  • the necessary and completing opposing item; one of two mutually completing parts; counterpart.

“The necklace is a stunning complement to the bracelet she received at Christmas.”

Verb—To fill in or make up what is lacking; to round off.

“Those shoes complement that outfit.”



  • a formal expression (as by speech, gesture, or ceremony) of esteem, respect, affection, or admiration.
  • formal recognition; respectful consideration.

“A chorus of compliments greeted the bride and groom as they entered the room.”


  • to greet ceremoniously or flatteringly; to pay a compliment to.
  • to present (a person) with a token of esteem, respect, affection, or admiration.
  • to congratulate.

“The students were complimented on their outstanding achievements”

When used as an adjective, complimentary can also mean free—something given as a courtesy.

“The hotel included complimentary parking on site.”

So if you look carefully, you can see nearly all of the word complete in complement—since that’s the base of the word. The next time you’re having trouble remembering if you should use complement or compliment, ask yourself if something is being completed—like a set or an outfit or the décor of a room. If so, then complement. If not, compliment. And if someone if getting something for free, it’s complimentary. Always.

Happy writing!

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