Word Choice – Compliment Versus Complement

BizWritingTip reader: “I wonder if you could write one about the use of ‘complement’ and ‘compliment.’ It seems the misuse of these words, in my opinion, is increasing. Is there an American variation influencing this or perhaps both can now be used interchangeably?”

BizWritingTip response: You are right. These words are often confused. However, “complement” and “compliment” are not interchangeable. They have different meanings.

“Complement” and “complementary” means something that completes or fills. But a “compliment” is a spoken or written expression of praise. When we add ary, the word “complimentary” has two meanings: praising and free of charge.


His tie complements his suit. (The tie completes the look.)

We have a full complement of staff. (All positions are filled.)

We serve complementary wine with our entrées. (The wine suits the meal.)

We serve complimentary wine with our entrées. (The wine is free with an entrée.)

Always check menus in a restaurant. Has the management unwittingly offered you free wine?