Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Compliment or complement?

with 8 comments

Alternative medicine
Image by dbz885 via Flickr

I wish I had a five pound note for every time I’ve seen these two words mixed up.

Compliment means:

To say nice things about, for example:

I must compliment you on your choice of lipstick.

This means you are being ‘complimentary’.

Complimentary also means ‘free’, for example:

Please accept this complimentary lipstick.

Complimentary has nothing to do with alternative medicine — that would be ‘complementary’ (unless you’re handing out free packets of aspirin).

Complement means:

A full set of things or people, for example:

I have a full complement of staff.

To go well with something else, for example:

The bread sauce complements the turkey.

The curtains complement the carpet.

And ‘complementary’ is where your root ginger and ginseng comes in. ‘Complementary medicine’ means ‘alternative medicine’.

How to remember the difference

I have a way of remembering whether to use ‘compliment/complimentary’ or ‘complement/complementary’.

Compliment/complimentary — this is the ‘i’ spelling. I think of ‘nice’ and ‘gift’ — both words are spelt with an ‘i’  and both relate to the meaning of the ‘i’ spelling of complimentary (to say nice things about, or something given as a gift).

Otherwise, complement or complementary will be correct.

I remember ‘complementary medicine’ by matching the first ‘e’ of ‘medicine’ with the ‘e’ spelling of complementary: Complementary medicine.

March 2013: Recently spotted

No wonder we get so confused about the difference between compliment and complement.This image was selected as a picture of the we... There I was, innocently eating Tesco’s ‘Finest’ Swiss milk chocolate and idly reading the packaging, when I came across this:

Milk, premium grade cocoa beans, complimented with
Caramelised Extra fine Walnut pieces.

You’ll now know that the ‘complimented’ there should be ‘complemented’.

The Random use of Capital letters is a Discussion for Another day. (See what I did there.)

More commonly confused words


Written by Wordwatch

16/12/2009 at 4:33 pm

8 Responses

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  1. Ha! Never seen “complementary medicine” used in that way. I don’t think it’s common in the US.

    Michael Farrell

    07/03/2010 at 5:16 pm

    • That’s interesting. What term do you use? Alternative medicine?


      07/03/2010 at 5:23 pm

  2. Yes, or holistic, Eastern, “Oriental” (ugg), or something similar.

    Michael Farrell

    07/03/2010 at 5:31 pm

  3. Also wellness, healing arts, Chinese medicine, integrative medicine, etc.

    After extensive researches *coughGooglecough* I found “complementary medicine” used and defined as follows in the L.A. Times: “Medicine outside the mainstream goes by many names — naturopathy, complementary, alternative and integrative medicine — partly because its umbrella covers almost any practice or product that is not generally taught in medical school or offered by traditional medical doctors. It encompasses a broad array of practices: crystal gazing, drinking green smoothies, taking fish oil, practicing yoga.”

    Michael Farrell

    08/03/2010 at 6:05 am

    • Thanks, Michael — what an interesting array of words. I think the challenge should be to find a one-syllable alternative.


      08/03/2010 at 7:44 am

  4. From the Guardian‘s corrections column:

    Homophone corner: “Arabs had humanity and a range of attributes to go with it: humour, subtlety, sophistication, conviviality and, yes, anger – the full compliment (The west can no longer claim to be an honest broker in the search for peace, 14 February, page 25).


    16/02/2011 at 10:35 am

    • That’s before correction, right?

      Michael Farrell

      16/02/2011 at 2:12 pm

      • Right. They pay the reader the subtle compliment of knowing it should be ‘complement’. Having said that, their corrections do sometimes require correction. Thanks, Michael.


        16/02/2011 at 5:32 pm

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