What’s the difference between compliment and complement?

One of my favourite sessions during Sentence Works masterclasses is where we look at commonly misused words. Everyone gets a big tick and cross to wave in the air when they think a word is being used correctly or incorrectly, before we discuss if it is correct and why.

We look at pairs of words including ie/eg, continuous/ continual, affect/ effect and  compliment/ complement.

It’s this last one that I’d like to explain today. And you’ll be pleased to know that it’s very straightforward.

There are two main meanings of compliment.

1)      If someone says something nice about you, it’s a compliment.

I’ve had a rubbish day so your compliments about my new glasses really cheered me up.

 He was very complimentary about me, but he still didn’t give me the job.

2)      If you get something for free

Please accept these mints with our compliments.

The use of towels within the gym is complimentary but please put them in the laundry bin at reception.

Complement means something quite different. It means something that goes well with something else, to improve it.

The custard complements the rich chocolate cake perfectly.

 They are great job-share partners as they have complementary skills.

 One way of remembering the difference is to think how if something complEments something else, it complEtes it.