Commonly confused words: compliment and complement

Words in English that look similar are easy to confuse. Words that sound similar are even easier to confuse. That means that two words that sound exactly the same and look almost the same must be really confusing, right? Here’s how to tell the difference.


Let’s start with ‘compliment‘. This word can be a verb or a noun. Either way, the pronunciation is /ˈkɒmplɪm(ə)nt/.When it’s a verb, it means: ‘to express approval or respect’. When it’s a noun, it means: ‘a remark or action that expresses approval, admiration or respect’.

For example:
“If you want to make him happy, compliment him on his new tie.” (verb)
“It was so nice that she gave me a compliment about my new tie.” (noun)


Now, let’s look at ‘complement‘. Notice that this word has an ‘e’ instead of an ‘i’ in the middle. The pronunciation is exactly the same, though. This word can have several meanings. It’s most commonly used as a verb to mean ‘two things that go well together, usually combining to make each other better’.

For example:
“The sauce really complements this dish. It makes the meat taste much nicer.” (verb)

Sometimes, we use ‘complement’ as a noun to mean ‘a full or complete group’. This is quite a formal-sounding word though, so it’s more common in writing than speaking.

For example:
“We had a full complement of staff today. Everyone was in the office.” (noun)

workplace full of people

So, that’s the difference between ‘compliment’ and ‘complement’. Not so difficult, is it? When you’re writing in English, just think about whether you are saying something nice about someone, talking about two things that go well together or talking about having a full set of something and you will never be confused again!

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