Usage Thursday: Complement Vs. Compliment

Always on the hunt for new opportunities, I had a job interview yesterday that included a pretty rigorous, three-part editing test. The first part was timed: I had thirty minutes to rewrite thirteen sentences that had been rejected from real marketing materials. The second part was two pages of copyediting questions ranging from choosing the right word (to vs. too vs. two) to correctly placing an apostrophe in singular and plural possessives, to punctuating sentences, to not only correcting grammar but explaining why it needed to be corrected, to explaining the difference between sentences that differed only by a comma (I included all the departments including artists and engravers vs. I included all the departments, including artists and engravers). The third part involved comparing cover proofs. It was gratifying to realize that other people care about this stuff as much as I do!

Anyway, one of the questions that gave me (slight) pause was a sentence that asked me to choose between complement and compliment. Both can be used as either nouns or verbs, and they are pronounced exactly the same. In fact, they differ in spelling by only one letter.

A compliment, with an i, is an expression of flattery or praise:

The human resources representative paid me a compliment on how I performed on the editing test.

The verb to compliment means to flatter or praise:

She also complimented my thorough examination of the cover proof.

A complement, with an e, however, is something that completes:

My skills as a writer were a complement to my experience as an editor.

And the verb to complement means to supplement or complete:

For this particular position, my background as a musician complemented my resume.

Grammar Girl has a nifty trick for remembering the difference: “Things that complement each other often complete each other.” Both complement and complete are spelled with e’s and no i’s.

Do you have a question about usage? Let me know, and we’ll discuss it in a future installment of Usage Thursday.

Resources

“complement.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2009. Merriam-Webster Online. 6 August 2009 <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/complement>

“compliment.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2009. Merriam-Webster Online. 6 August 2009 <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/compliment>

Chicago Manual of Style, The. 15th ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Fogarty, Mignon, Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2008.

Goldstein, Norm, ed. The Associated Press Stylebook. 42nd ed. New York: Basic Books, a Member of the Perseus Books Group, 2007.

Hacker, Diana, The Bedford Handbook for Writers, 3rd ed. Boston: St. Martin’s Press: 1991.

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