Friday, November 28, 2014

Get It Right: Compliment and Complement

A couple of weeks ago, we explained how to correctly use the English words "capital" and "capitol". Today we're continuing our linguistic quest to prevent unnecessary spelling mistakes with a look at two more words that start with the letter 'c', compliment and complement, which are confused far more often than they should be. However, it is somewhat understandable given that they came from the Latin word complementum.


When used as a noun, compliment refers to "an expression of praise or admiration". For example, it's generally a compliment when someone tells you that they like your new haircut. The term is also used as a verb to refer to the act of using such an expression, as in "John complimented Mary on her graduation from medical school".


The addition of bacon complements a cheeseburger.
The term complement can also be used as both a noun and a verb. It's usually used to refer to something that helps to improve or enhance something else, as in "red wine is the perfect complement to beef".

It's also used, albeit less frequently, to refer to a quantity necessary to make a group complete, as in "the company has a full complement of staff".

The term complement is also used in linguistics and grammar to refer to a word that is necessary to "complete" the meaning of a phrase or sentence. For example, in the sentence "She devoured the hamburger", the hamburger is the object complement of the verb devoured. The presence of the hamburger is essential to the completion of the sentence because the verb devour requires an object. If it didn't, then we could just say "She devoured" without it sounding horribly wrong.

In any case, if you just remember that compliments are things that are said (or written), then you should always know which of these two terms to use.

Have we still not covered your biggest pet peeve when it comes to English spelling and grammar mistakes? Let us know in the comments and we'll try to address it in the future!