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Complementary vs. Complimentary

Homonyms frequently hound writers, tripping us up or letting us down. Also known as homophones, such pairs of words are phonetically and audibly matched, but offer completely distinct definitions.

Complementary and complimentary can create a quagmire for writers and editors. These words sound the same, but these two terms have altogether different meanings.

Here’s some complimentary advice for writers on the proper use of complementary and complimentary.

Complementary pertains to completeness. Mathematicians call two angles complementary, if their sum equals 90 degrees, or a right angle. Artists and fashion designers refer to contrasting hues (on a color wheel) as complementary, as these tints may be paired for an appealing appearance.

(Of course, in such a case, the artist or designer is likely to receive plenty of compliments for using complementary colors aesthetically.)

Complimentary may refer to flavor or flattery. For example, a hotel might offer complimentary shampoo, while the front desk manager may compliment a guest on his fine hairstyle or fashion sense. In such a case, both the hair product and the flattery are given gratuitously, either as a gift or a gushing declaration.

How can writers keep these two words straight?

Look for the extra “e” in complementary, as it matches the one in complete.

Watch for the “i” in complimentary, as compliments seem to stroke the ego of their recipients.


Now, despite what your spell-checker might say, you know the correct usage of complementary and complimentary.

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1 comment:

  1. Great tip for keeping the two straight! Thank you!


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