Everybody loves a compliment. Or is it a complement they love? If there is a published list of commonly confused words, complement and compliment are almost certain to appear. However, these two terms don’t have to be on your personal list of befuddling vocabulary! Here’s the breakdown.

What They Both Used to Mean

Complement and compliment used to share some meanings, because they derive from the same Latin root word. Complement used to mean “to compliment,” but that meaning is obsolete. Compliment has an archaic meaning also; it used to mean a gift.

What They Mean Now: Complement as a Noun

If you think complement looks a little like the word complete, that can help you to remember some of its most useful meanings. A complement is something that completes or perfects. In grammar, it’s a word or group of words that completes a grammatical construction. In geometry, it’s the quantity that an angle or an arc is short of ninety degrees. Here are some examples from the web:

“A complement is part of the predicate of a sentence and describes either the subject of the sentence or the direct object. If it modifies the subject, it is called a subject complement. If it modifies or renames the direct object and follows it, it is called an object complement.” —

Complement as a Verb

Complement as a verb means “to complete, to provide something lacking, or form a complement to.” Here’s one example from the web:

“One technology doesn’t replace another, it complements. Books are no more threatened by Kindle than stairs by elevators.”
—Stephen Fry

What They Mean Now: Compliment as a Noun

A compliment is an expression of praise, commendation, respect, or regard. It can be a formal act or as simple as a courteous greeting or wishing someone well. Notice these examples:

“To be trusted is a greater compliment than being loved.”
—George MacDonald

“I take no leave of you, Miss Bennet. I send no compliments to your mother. You deserve no such attention. I am most seriously displeased.”
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Compliment as a Verb

The verb compliment means to praise, congratulate, or say something admiring to someone. It can also include showing kindness. Compliments may come in the form of a friendly gesture or a gift.

“Compliment people. Magnify their strengths, not their weaknesses.”
—Joyce Meyer

Merriam-Webster Learner’s Dictionary helps us see how native speakers might use the phrase “compliments of” with some examples. In the first example below, the phrase identifies the provider of something given at no charge. The second example uses the phrase sarcastically to refer to the source of something unwanted.

We were served free drinks, compliments of the casino.
I woke up with a stiff neck, compliments of that uncomfortable mattress in their guest room.

Just remember that complement is related to completion, while a compliment relates to flattering words or acts. Do you love a compliment? If you are ready to remove compliment and complement from your personal list of confusing words, you deserve one! Good job!