Q&A: Compliment vs complement

Each week, we take a look at a common confusions and ambiguities in the English language (that gives us about a century’s worth of material!) – making things easier through the power of friendly conversation… This week, when do we use each of these two?

Q: Hi Australian Writers’ Centre. Can you clarify the whole complimentary vs complementary thing for me? I keep thinking I’m seeing it wrong on stuff, but then wonder if I’m actually the one who has it wrong. Can you help?
A: With your general feelings of self-doubt? No. But that question, sure. And you’re right, it’s a VERY common error. Yes, there are two spellings, with an ‘I’ (compliment) and with an ‘E’ (complement).

Q: Tell me about ‘complement’ first.
A: Okay. The ‘E’ version means to ‘complete’ something (“you compl-E-te me”). i.e. “those particular colours are complementary to each other”. Or: “that sofa complements the rest of the room very well”. Or even: “we have the full complement of sofas now”.

Q: Okay, I’m with you sofa. Haha, see what I did there?
A: Unfortunately, yes. So when it comes to the ‘I’ version – and this is often where the confusion happens – there are a few meanings. The first is to pay a compliment; say something nice. “I’d like to compliment you on your choice of furnishings” (and you can pay compliments, have complimented, be complimenting or complimentary about someone/something). A plural variation is to thank – “with compliments” or a “with compliments slip”. And finally, ‘complimentary’ can also mean when you get something for FREE. i.e. “Buy a sofa and receive two complimentary cushions.”

Q: Yeah, but technically, the cushions probably do complement the sofa?
A: Yes, but if you want to express that they’re free, you’d say ‘complimentary’. Another reason why writing things down can remove ambiguity (sometimes!). To remember that “I” rule, you might like to say “*I* got it for free”.

Q: Thanks! I would pay you a compliment, but it’s complimentary.
A: Exactly. You’ve complemented our answers very well.

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