Complementary vs Complimentary

June 23, 2011

in Creative writing

There are a number of confusing, similar words in the English language, and none more so than complimentary and complementary. These two words are always being used incorrectly, and the majority of people don’t know when and how to use each instance. Contrary to popular belief, the two are not interchangeable, and are in fact used to highlight entirely different situations.

First let’s look at the word “complimentary”…

The easiest way to remember when to use this version of the word is when you say something nice about someone or something. So, you might say one of the following;

“I gave her a big compliment”.

“I complimented him on his football skills”.

“Thank you for the compliment”.

Remember: Use “compliment” for flattery and to “compliment” appearance.

Now let’s look at the word “complementary”…

The easiest way to remember when to use this version of the word is when you comment on the completion of a set or a group. So, you might say one of the following:

“The tiles really complement the floor”.

“The new software update will complement the existing system”.

“This pair of shoes will complement my dress”.

Remember: Use complement for a set, a matching pair, or an addition to a group.

But hang on…what about getting something for free?

In this instance we are dealing with a form of flattery, and therefore the word takes on the form of “complimentary”.

So you would say:

“A complimentary coffee on arrival at the hotel”.

“Complimentary WIFI with the apartment”.

Complementary vs Complimentary In Summary

Okay. So let’s summarise all this information and use both words across three instances in one sentence:

“The waitress gave me a complimentary coffee so I complimented her on her efficient service. But to be honest, the restaurant décor didn’t complement the high level service in the slightest.”

If you are still unsure, another trick you can use is to ask yourself whether or not the compliment/complement is talking to its subject. For example, my shoes aren’t talking to my suit, so therefore the shoes complement my suit. Yet I am paying my mum a compliment when I say to her that she looks very well.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Jason June 30, 2015 at 5:18 pm

So what if item both completes and flatters? Then what? Use both? It could be argued that by completing or being included in a set it nearly by definition flatters the other item or items in the set, making them nearly one in the same.


Crossetta May 12, 2017 at 8:26 am

HURRAY, for people, like you.


Blue September 25, 2015 at 11:26 pm

I want to compliment you on your very clear and helpful reference! It will complement my English lessons nicely 🙂


joey December 15, 2015 at 12:19 pm



Walt March 17, 2016 at 9:06 am

You are saying “well” when you should say “good.”
The phrase:
“…I am paying my mum a compliment when I say to her that she looks very well.”
This would mean that she has good eyesight. I think the writer intends to state that she “looks very good.” The adjective would then refer to her appearance.


Jamie April 10, 2018 at 2:42 pm

Walt, the writer could also mean “well” as opposed to “unwell” or “ill”.


David May 30, 2018 at 10:49 pm

Not quite. Well is also a synonym for ‘healthy’, and as such, can have adjectival force.


Maria Porzio July 5, 2018 at 1:49 pm

“Well” could also mean “healthy”; in that case, the writer would be correct.


Eric November 20, 2018 at 4:04 pm

@Walt The author could be saying his mum looks like she’s in very good health. “Well” can be an adjective, too.


Kathleen Bashian October 2, 2016 at 7:35 pm

So helpful in clearing up the usage of “compliment” and “complement.”


Jacqui February 1, 2017 at 7:54 pm

And then there are complementary colours, which don’t necessarily compliment each other. Opposite each other on colour wheel.


Jannie February 25, 2019 at 3:14 am

So if the waitress gives you a complimentary coffee to complement the breakfast that would be right? 😉


Leave a Comment

Next post: