Monday, June 8, 2015

Compliment versus Complement


Most people, myself included, don’t articulate any pronunciation difference between ‘compliment’ and ‘complement,’ and while the case could be made for a bit more nose in ‘compliment’ and a bit more palate in ‘complement,’ perceptible distinction between the two in speaking is, in my opinion, conspicuously sophist. As a result, some people never get clear on the distinction, and then when they have to write it, they not only suffer correction from cub reporters, copy jockeys and word nerds, everyone from Moms to trolls knows this one so they hear from them as well.

And it’s simple; to compliment someone is to say or write something nice about him or her. It is a thing one human being does to another. I suppose a cat could compliment his owner on her fine taste in moving to the country with a fresh dead mouse on the doormat, but it is most commonly an expression of admiration regarding a possession, action or attribute from one person to another.

The word ‘complement’ references things as well as people. A chair complements a room, a building complements a street, and a European kicker complements an American football team. That which makes another thing better or more complete. Some of my early readers have told me the following example is obscure, but I find it helpful, and I think it merits presenting. I am fond of what I like to call the Lebowski method in distinguishing between ‘compliment’ and ‘complement.’ The rug complements the room in that it ties the room together, whereas “Hey, nice marmot!” is a compliment.

We have been discussing the verb forms of these two words, and they each have a noun form as well, both of which present similar points of distinction so we'll not belabor those, as even the crux of this entry has certainly been more than enough on something you’re probably comfortable with already. At least the price was right. As with all of the postings here at The Grammar Dance, this disquisition doesn’t rise to the point of even being my two cents worth. Rather it is offered with my compliments.