A very common error that many people make is mistaking complement for compliment (and vice versa). Although these two words may vary by only a single letter, just like affect and effect, they have vastly different meanings. Whether you are composing a business letter or just a casual e-mail message, it is in your best interest to understand the distinction between complement and compliment.

The words complement and complementary are used to describe items that assist, improve, or complete one another in some way. Slow-roasted potatoes serve as a complementary side dish to your delicious sirloin steak. Going back to the color theory that you may have learned in elementary school, colors on opposite sides of the color wheel are said to complementary. Red is complementary to green. You may also say that your coffee table complements your couch quite well.

A compliment, on the other hand, expresses gratitude or praise. A diner at a restaurant may give his compliments to the chef. You can compliment your lady friend on how great she looks before you head out for a night on the town. This is perhaps the most common usage of the word compliment.

One usage that may spark some confusion is when describing something that is given to you for free. For example, a hotel may offer free parking and continental breakfast to all of its guests. These services are described as complimentary and not complementary. This is a little odd, because the exact meaning of the “free” gift fits both the definition for compliment and complement. They are expressing their gratitude to you by providing you with a gift, but the free parking supplements your hotel stay.

Is there a certain issue with grammar or spelling that you would like to see clarified? While I am not a certified expert in the intricacies of the English language, I would like to think that as a professional freelance writer (and someone who was an English Literature minor in university) that I have a certain grasp of what word to use under what circumstances.

If there is some odd English construction that’s been irking you, feel free to ask for some clarification using the comment form below. You just may receive a “complimentary” mention in a future edition of Grammar 101.