Complement or Compliment: How One Letter Causes Chaos


One thing that frustrates people about English is that two words can sound exactly the same, differ by a mere letter, and yet have completely different meanings. While those subtle differences actually interest me—how tiny shifts change everything in written expression—you don’t have to understand the technical aspects to keep confusing words straight. There are ways to cheat.

For today, let’s dissect complement versus compliment and the easy way to tell them apart.

  • Complement: Most of the time, we use this word to mean “something that completes” or “the number of quantity that makes complete.” Here are two examples:
    • Peanut butter is the perfect complement to jelly. [And it’s great with spaghetti.]
    • He had the usual complement of eyes and ears (i.e., two apiece).
  • Compliment: This is the noun and verb you use when referring to how we butter people up and tell them how great they are.
    • He complimented me on my dashing choice of pink and green pants. His promotion came through the next day.
    • The dog seemed uninterested in the compliment about its hair.

The easy way to remember the difference is to think that most of the word complete is a part of complement (with an e)—think of it as “completement.” This makes sense, as both words come from the same Latin root. We won’t dive into that, but understanding word origins does help in knowing why something works like it does. Most dictionaries can help you with that.

Any similarly spelled words that give you fits? Leave them in the comments.

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