Make Your Editor Cry: Compliment vs. Complement vs. Supplement

Make Your Editor Cry: Compliment vs. Complement vs. Supplement

The words compliment and complement were once spelled the same but compliment became distinct from complement around 1650. They’re still pronounced the same but they do not mean the same thing.

To compliment, with an “-i,” is to offer praise to or admiration for. Compliment can be used as a noun or verb. As a verb, it just means, well, to pay a compliment. As a noun, compliment is an expression of esteem, acclaim, or admiration. This could be in the form of words or actions. For instance, “You’re such a good writer.” You might compliment your date on her dance moves. “You really know how to walk like an Egyptian!” is a compliment.

In other definitions, to complement, with an “-e,” means to complete some other thing, or set of things. A complement is something that makes up a satisfying whole with something else. Those shiny red shoes you just bought can complement your shiny red purse. A box of chocolates might complement the flowers you give your date. A complement is the thing doing the completing. The red shoes complete the look of, and therefore complement, the red purse by making them “a set” of things. The chocolates complement the flowers.

Complement can be used in mathematical expressions and phrasing but that’s not what this article is really about. If you know the math, odds are you already know the proper usage in that context.

People can be complementary to each other as well. Christians (usually) understand the complementary roles of husbands and wives in the context of holy matrimony. Godly marriage is intended to signify the union of two people who complement each other in love and life.

The words compliment and complement can be confused because they are homonyms with similar spelling. But the words complement and supplement can easily be confused as meaning the same thing, when there’s a difference.

Supplement seems a lot like complement in that it can help complete something, but it’s most commonly used to make an addition to something. A good example is if you take supplemental vitamin pills in addition to eating healthy foods. Supplementing your diet with additional vitamins and minerals does not complete your diet, but it does add vital nutrients to your daily regimen.

Examples:

Incorrect:

I paid a complement to my neighbor on his impressive landscaping.
I paid a supplement to my neighbor on his impressive landscaping.
We have a full compliment of proven tactics to overcome grief.
We have a full supplement of proven tactics to overcome grief.
Complement your daily pushups and sit-ups with weight training to improve your core strength even more.
Compliment your daily pushups and sit-ups with weight training to improve your core strength even more.

Correct:

I paid a compliment to my neighbor on his impressive landscaping.
We have a full complement of proven tactics to overcome grief.
Supplement your daily pushups and sit-ups with weight training to improve your core strength even more.

A good way to keep these straight is to remember that compliment with an “-i” is just a nice thing to say, complement with an “-e” completes things, and supplement is something added to something else.

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