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Compliment vs. Complement: the Difference, Illustrated

I stumbled upon the next entry to our list of common homophones in English in an embarrassing way: I totally mixed up compliment vs. complement, myself — despite being an experienced ELA educator for nearly 20 years! Sheesh… if this National Board Certified Teacher could get stumped so profoundly by this pair, I figured it would be worth writing it up as a lesson, so others could avoid my mistake.

As background, my name is Ms. Marshall, and besides being an English teacher, I’m also an artist. This is relevant, because I hand-draw each and every one of the illustrations on this site, to go with each lesson. I try to make each picture memorable, to help the learning stick! Ready for the lesson?

Compliment vs. complement
Compliment vs. complement: What’s the difference?

Compliment Definition and Meaning

A compliment is defined as polite praise (noun), or the act of giving such kind praise (verb). For example, if you give a student a compliment for telling the difference between aloud vs. allowed, you might say, “Wow, you’re really doing a great job learning how to use challenging homophones correctly!”

A way you can remember the meaning and spelling of compliment (because this is certainly a hard word to spell due to uncertainty about whether it’s an “i” or “e” in the middle) is to recall the phrase I’ve written in my illustration above: “I like it!” This sentence reflects the praising nature of the word, and starts with “i” to jog the memory about the correct vowel.

Definition and Meaning of Complement

In contrast, the word complement means something that adds to another thing to make it complete, perfect, or great (noun), or the act of adding to something to make it complete or fabulous. For example, “A pear would be the perfect complement to the apples in this fruit salad. Let’s chop one up!”

There are two tricks to remember the meaning of compliment — and that it has an “e” in the middle instead of an “i.” One method is to see that the start of the word forms the beginning of “COMPLEte,” which reflects that the definition is about bringing completion. The second way is written at the bottom in my illustration, which you can peek back at to see: “They’re excellent together!” features the letter “e” at the start of excellent.

Complement or compliment
Complement or compliment, illustrated!

Compliment vs. Complement

Now that we know the difference between these two words, we can fix some common phrases that use each.

• To praise someone’s cooking, say, “My compliments to the chef on these rolls,” not “My complements to the chef,” because you’re giving the person praise, not forming a complete whole with them.

• Write “complementary colors,” not “complimentary colors,” because this color theory phrase is about opposite colors that complete each other, not about nice words.

• “He compliments her eyes,” means he says flattering things about her eyes. “That dress complements her eyes,” means it looks nice juxtaposed with her eyes, and creates a complete look.

• Use the phrase “a complimentary service,” not “a complementary service” to describe something that is given for free, or without a cost, as a perk to be kind to customers.

• “The husband complimented his wife” means he said nice things about her. “The husband complemented his wife” means that he matched well with her to create a whole, unified couple that balanced out strengths and weaknesses.

VIDEO: Time Lapse Art for the Lesson

See my drawing process for this English lesson.

Compliment vs. Complement, in Sum

I hope this tutorial on compliment vs. complement has been useful, as well as enjoyable. What should I illustrate and explain next? Who’s ready for the next lesson? Do share!

Want more? Check out “Weather vs. Whether...”