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Last updated at 09:38 GMT, Wednesday, 03 February 2010

Compliment and complement

A bunch of pink flowers

The flowers are complimentary.

A question from Norbert in Cameroon:
I would like to know when to use the following pair of words: compliment and complement.

Amy Lightfoot answers

Click below to hear the answer:

Hi Norbert. Thanks for your question – it’s a good one. Students often have problems differentiating between these two words. Let’s have a look at each of the words you’ve asked about one by one.

Compliment [with an i] can be both a verb and a noun. As a verb, 'to compliment' means to say something positive about someone or something or to praise someone. As a noun, 'a compliment' refers to the positive thing or praise that was given. You can use the word compliment and members of the same word family in a number of ways. Here are some common phrases – notice the verbs that are used, they may surprise you:

Ed likes to pay people compliments.
You should take it as a compliment.

It’s strange that we use the verb 'to pay' when talking about compliments, especially when the opposite is 'to take' the compliment – it seems like we should use 'to give' instead, as in she’s always giving me compliments. In fact, this is sometimes used but technically compliment goes with the verb 'to pay'.

Two other useful expressions are:
The flowers are complimentary
Please accept this bottle of wine with the compliments of the chef.

Both these uses mean that the thing (flowers or the bottle of wine) are being given free of charge, and as a kind of gift. You can also say:

Please give my compliments to the chef!

This means that you would like the chef to be told that you enjoyed the food that he or she cooked. This expression is usually used just for chefs and cooking.

While they only have one letter that is different, the meaning of complement [with an e] is different to compliment [with an i]. Look at these examples:

That top really complements your eyes.
I think that you and your husband really complement each other – you’re a good team.

So if something complements something else it means it goes well with it and even makes it appear better or more attractive. Like your first word, you can use complement as either a verb or a noun. For example:

She is a real complement to the team.
That bag is the perfect complement to your outfit.

Interestingly, the adjective form is the same as for your first word: 'complementary'. However, the meaning changes slightly here. If two things are 'complementary' it means that although they are different, they go together well. For example, the colours purple and yellow are complementary colours – they’re very different, but they go together well. You may also have heard of complementary medicine – this refers to alternative forms of medicine which can be used to complement or work with Western, pharmaceutical-based medicine.

I hope this makes the differences in meaning clear for you. It is quite confusing, especially because the pronunciation of both words is essentially the same. With the stress on the first syllable in both words, any change in sound in the middle is completely lost. While you’re reading, look out for and examine written examples of each word and this will help to cement your knowledge of them.

About Amy Lightfoot

Amy Lightfoot

Amy Lightfoot started out doing a degree in psychology in 1995 and quickly became interested in the processes involved in learning languages. She now has a Trinity CertTESOL, DELTA and MA in English Language Teaching. She has taught English and worked on teacher training projects in the UK, Portugal, India, Afghanistan and Bhutan. She is currently working as a freelance materials writer and language trainer in Somerset, England.


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