Compliment vs. Complement – Which Is it?

Hello again! I’m Mr Joshua, a teacher at Lil’ but Mighty. In previous videos, we’ve explored differences between “Advice” and “Advise” and “Practice” and “Practise”. Today, we’re going to be looking at another pair of commonly mistaken words. These words are often confused with each other and students use them interchangeably or wrongly. Today, our pair of often mistaken words is – “Compliment and Complement”. Do I use the one with “i” or “e”? What’s the difference? Let’s find out!

First of all, let’s take a look at how the two words are used in sentences:

  1. John’s friends complimented him after he won the international writing competition.
  2. The colour and design of this bookshelf perfectly complement the rest of the furniture in the room.

As you can see, both words are used as verbs, so the difference this time doesn’t lie in the word class. In fact, the two words have totally different meanings. In the case of the first sentence, John’s friends praised him after he had done something well. As such, ‘compliment’ with an ‘i’ is the act of politely praising or congratulating someone for something.

In the second sentence, the bookshelf complements the rest of the furniture, this means that it goes well with the look of the room. In fact, the word ‘complement’ comes from the Latin word for ‘complete’.

But do you know that both words can be used as nouns as well? Take a look at the next two sentences:

  1. John received many compliments from his friends when he won the international writing competition.
  2. The bookshelf is a perfect complement to the rest of the furniture in the room.

Do you realise that they retain the same meanings despite being nouns? In the first example, ‘compliments’ with an ‘i’ refers to the praises that John received from his friends, while what the second example is trying to convey is that the bookshelf is something that completes the look of the room.

So, how do you remember how to tell them apart? The way I differentiate them is by remembering the ‘e’ in ‘complete’ – so if something completes or matches with something else, I will use ‘complement’ with an ‘e’. Another way is by remembering that compliments are praises for me, or “i”. Therefore ‘compliment’ spelt with the “i” means to be praised (which, by the way, also has the letter “i”!).

Let’s see if you have understood the difference between ‘compliment’ and ‘complement’. Try the following questions:

  1. Being compared to Stephen King is a great (compliment / complement) because he is a master of horror and suspense.
  2. Susan (complimented / complemented) me on my new hairstyle, making me blush shyly.
  3. The illustrations in the book (compliment / complement) the story so well that everyone enjoys reading it.
  4. You can (compliment / complement) your outfit with a jacket that suits both formal and casual occasions.

Did you manage to choose the correct option? Let’s check your answers now!

1. Being compared to Stephen King is a great (compliment / complement) because he is a master of horror and suspense.

Imagine being compared to such a prolific writer! It means that your own writing is deserving of high praise.

2. Susan (complimented / complemented) me on my new hairstyle, making me blush shyly.

In this instance, I am blushing because of Susan’s admiration or praise for my new hairstyle.

3. The illustrations in the book (compliment / complement) the story so well that everyone enjoys reading it.

Everyone likes the book because when combined with the illustrations, the story becomes even better.

4. You can (compliment / complement) your outfit with a jacket that suits both formal and casual occasions.

For this example, the outfit is enhanced when you wear it with the jacket.

I hope this has helped you to differentiate yet another 2 commonly confused words. What other pairs of words do you have difficulty differentiating? Tell us in the comments section so we can help you sort them out!


Grammar Grandma Bites – Lil’ but Mighty’s P5/6 Grammar Self-Paced Online Course!

1. Focuses on more than 10 types of subject-verb agreement questions e.g. Neither/Either, question tag, extra information etc.
2. 14 Overall revision worksheets and 11 topical worksheets included (over 200 practice questions in total)
3. Answers clearly annotated to show important clues and to explain the choice for every question
4. Reference to matching videos included for each question (Allows pupils to revisit the relevant strategy if necessary)

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Mr. Joshua

Mr Joshua believes that learning does not happen in a vacuum and strives to bring the real world into the classroom. He enjoys telling stories and works hard to ensure his classroom is a welcoming environment in which all students are comfortable to share their thoughts and ideas – It’s fine to make mistakes as long as we learn from them. Mr Joshua has a passion for English Literature and encourages his students to read widely and write earnestly.

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