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Complement and Compliment – Common Mistakes in English as a Second Language (ESL)

Updated on March 30, 2014
Complement or compliment, which one is it?
Complement or compliment, which one is it? | Source

PLUS: Complementary and Complimentary

Complement and compliment are two words in the English language that cause slight confusion among learners of English as a Second Language or ESL.

The confusion springs from the fact that these two words are so similar in more than one way.

Both have similar pronunciations and even spellings.

Also, both can function either as a noun, which can be a subject or an object in a sentence, or a verb, which is an action word.

However, they have different meanings and should be used differently in sentences.

Below is quick guide on understanding and correctly using the words complement and compliment.

When to Use Complement

We use complement in the following situations:

  • When we need a noun in a sentence, then we may go for complement.
  • When used as a noun, complement may refer to a person or thing that makes a good match to something or someone.
  • It can refer to a person or thing that completes someone or something.
  • It can also refer to a part that makes a two-part thing complete.
  • When we need a verb in a sentence, then we may also use complement.
  • When used as a verb, complement may mean to “serve as a complement (noun).”
  • It can also mean to “complete.”

Examples of Complement in Sentences

  1. Peanut sauce is a tasty complement to spring rolls.
  2. We serve a complement of spring rolls from Asia.
  3. Fish balls are a complement to noodle soups.
  4. Teriyaki sauce complements most kinds of meatball.
  5. Vegetables complement balanced meals.

When to Use Compliment

We use compliment in the following cases:

  • When we need a noun in a sentence, then we can use compliment.
  • When used as a noun, compliment means "a flattering remark" or "an admiring comment."
  • It can refer to a formal way of paying respects.
  • It can also refer to formal greetings.
  • When we need a verb in a sentence, then we can also use compliment.
  • When used as a verb, compliment means to “give compliments (noun).”
  • It can mean to “show kindness.”
  • It can also mean to “congratulate.”

Examples of Compliment in Sentences

  1. The mayor thanked the president for his generous compliments.
  2. The president paid the mayor the compliment of a formal visit.
  3. The president gives his holiday compliments on national television.
  4. The president complimented the mayor for his good leadership.
  5. He complimented the mayor with a Presidential Badge of Honor.
  6. He complimented him for a job well done.

Some Notes on Complementary and Complimentary

Two related words to complement and compliment are complementary and complimentary.

These two words have different uses in a sentence:

  • Complementary is usually an adjective. In cases when it refers to a color, then it functions as a noun.
  • Complimentary may be a noun or an adjective.

They also have different definitions:

  • Complementary (adjective): acting as a complement
  • Complementary (noun): a color that looks good with another color or other colors
  • Complimentary (adjective): flattering; free
  • Complimentary (noun): something that is free

Examples of Complementary and Complimentary in Sentences

  1. Peach is a complementary color. It goes well on any skin tones.
  2. Black, silver, and white are complementary to most colors.
  3. Thank you for your complimentary words.
  4. This is complimentary. It is not for resale.

Mini Test on Complement , Compliment, Complementary, and Complimentary

  1. Black pumps _____ many kinds of office wear.
  2. She got _____ from her colleagues for her smart outfit.
  3. A black pencil skirt is _____ to most blouses.
  4. As a prize, she got _____ dresses.
  5. She likes getting _____, words that just make her feel great.

Mini Test Answers

  1. complement
  2. compliments
  3. complementary
  4. complimentary
  5. compliments

Copyright © 2012 Kerlyn Bautista

All Rights Reserved


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    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 5 years ago from The Caribbean

      Kerlyn, you're a good teacher. Sometimes these questions are asked, and the answer just adds to the puzzle. Your explanations are very clear. Thanks!

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 5 years ago

      Now that I see these two words together, I wonder how many times I have made this mistake. Thanks for posting this educational hub. It is one I needed to rethink and adjust in my writings.

    • Ely Maverick profile image

      Ely Maverick 5 years ago from The Beautiful Archipelago of the Philippines

      I understand that there are simple but confusing words in English language when it comes to meaning.

      This hub greatly helped me to understand those nuances. Thanks for sharing.