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Compliment Vs. Complement

October 2, 2014

Recently at ESL Library we’ve been hard at work creating our second Detective Series. In one of the lessons, head writer Tara Benwell included an exercise on compliment and complement, and she pointed out how to tell them apart. I thought this pair of commonly confused words would also make a great blog post since English language learners might have a hard time keeping these homophones straight. (And to find out what homonyms, homophones, and homographs are, read the blurb at the end of this post!)


Definition: a positive remark, something nice that was said about someone or something
  • He paid me a compliment on my dress this morning.
  • She gave her boss a compliment about how well the meeting went.
Definition: to say something nice about someone or something
  • My teacher complimented me on my presentation.
  • Their realtor complimented them on their interior design.


Definition: something that matches or goes well with another thing
  • This spicy sauce is the perfect complement to barbecued meat.
  • Red wine is a well-known complement to red meat, and wine wine is a good complement to poultry and seafood.
Definition: to match or go well with another thing
  • I’m looking for a new chair that will complement the rest of my furniture.
  • That shade of blue in your dress really complements your eyes.

Tara’s Trick

Think of the “e” in complement as “extra” (one thing complements another, extra thing).


Did you know that even the adjective and adverb forms of these two words look and sound the same?

Compliment (n, v) Complement (n, v)
Complimentary (adj) Complementary (adj)
Complimentarily (adv) Complementarily (adv)

The meanings of the adjectives and adverbs are similar to the noun/verb meanings, but it’s worthwhile mentioning to students that another common meaning of the adjective complimentary is “free, no charge.” (E.g., Complimentary breakfast is served every day at the hotel.)

Homonyms, Homophones & Homographs

Homonyms are words that have the same pronunciation and/or spelling but different meanings, such as left (the opposite of right) and left (the past tense of leave). Homonyms include homophones and homographs.

Homophones are words with the same pronunciation but different meanings and/or spelling, such as to, too, and two.

Homographs are words with the same spelling but different meanings and/or pronunciation, such as bow (a position where one bends over at the waist) and bow (a wooden weapon that is used to shoot arrows).

Compliment and complement are homonyms. Specifically, they are homophones because they are both pronounced /ˈkɑm plə ˌmənt/ even though they are spelled differently and have different meanings.

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Comments (5)

Tara Benwell(Author)

Excellent post, Tanya! It's fun to share what goes on behind the scenes at Red River Press. We're having a lot of fun (and learning a lot) with the NEW Detective Series, aren't we?

I think students and teachers will really appreciate this week's tips and tricks. I have found that I absolutely must come up with a memory trick for every word that I commonly spell incorrectly. Memory tricks for meanings are also important. Can you help me think of one for 'homonym,' 'homophone,' and 'homograph'? I always forget which is which! Personally, I prefer English to Math (I find graphs especially tricky and hard on the eyes), so maybe I can remember it that way. The homographs are trickier because they are spelled the same.

This week I was trying to think of a memory trick for 'separate' because my online writing students have a tough time with that one (they spell it how it sounds - 'seperate'), and I used to too. I told them to remember that 'par' was in the middle separating the other vowels, but that's not very memorable. Any ideas?

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Memory tricks really help with English spelling!

For 'homophone' and 'homograph,' I look at the word meaning. Because of my background in linguistics, I think of the words 'phonology' and 'phonetics,' which are two branches of the study of sounds. 'Telephone' would also work well to remember 'homophone' is about sounds/pronunciation! 'Graph' means writing, as in autograph, biography, etc. That helps me remember that 'homograph' means writing/spelling.

As for 'homonyms,' 'synonyms' (different words with similar meanings, like small and little), and 'antonyms' (different words with opposite meanings, like big and small), it's a bit tricky to keep them all straight. Anti- is a common prefix for 'opposite,' so 'antonym' is easy for me to remember. I just had to memorize 'synonyms' and 'homonyms'! Homo- is a prefix that means the same, so that might help you remember that homonyms are words with the same pronunciation and/or spelling but different meanings.

'Separate' is tough! I don't have a good trick for that word. I hope some of the teachers or students who read this will suggest their tricks below! I also had a tough time with 'grammar' (not grammer) until I started teaching English and used 'grammar' all the time! How about 'stationary/stationery'? These two are both actual words with different meanings. 'Stationary' is to stay in one place, and 'stationery' is paper, pens, and other office supplies. I remember these two by thinking of the word 'letter.' 'Letter' only contains e's and not a's, and since you write letters on stationery, I remember the 'e' spelling.

I hope others will share their spelling memory tricks with us below! :)

Tara Benwell(Author)

Good tips! I remember 'stationery' as having an 'e' for envelope in it, so we have a similar trick!

Reply to Comment

Tara Benwell(Author)

Another teacher just shared this tip! I'll be sharing it with my students and I don't think I'll ever forget again:

'Regarding your comment about remembering the spelling of separate. There was a cute story in my elementary school reading book about a girl (long ago in pioneer days) getting ready for a spelling bee. One of her parents or grandparents coached her and told about how they had lost their spelling bee with the word separate because of a rat.

The girl remembered that there is a rat and when she was given that word she won.

I just remembered from that day on that there is a rat in separate. If you remember there is a rat, you will always spell it correctly. Otherwise I would probably spell it wrong because of the pronunciation.' Mr. Bob

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Great tip! Thanks, Mr. Bob!

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