A Quick Reminder about Compliment and Complement


It always surprises me when longtime writers don't know this one: a nice wine complements a meal. It doesn't compliment it.

I understand the attraction of using "compliment" here. Something that goes well with something else kind of flatters it. And flattery is akin to paying someone a compliment. But that's not what people mean when they talk about foods that go well together or furniture or colors.

The complement with the e in the middle is actually an extension of the idea of completing something. So a nice wine completes the meal and a nice piece of wall art completes the room. Yes, they flatter them, too. But just remember that if they go well together there's an e in the middle: The rug complements the room. If one says something nice to another there's an i in the middle: Beth complimented Erin's haircut. And two things that go well together are complementary while something given for free is complimentary.