Wednesday, January 16, 2013
May I Compliment You on Your Complement? Homophones
So, I though perhaps if I outline the difference between them, it would help me as much as anyone else.
A compliment (noun), with the i, is something spoken in praise of a person or thing. First and foremost, something is complimentary when it's given free of charge. As in the picture above, it's given as a gift, sent with greetings and good wishes. That meaning of the word evolved into the praise we use it as today, and "with our compliments" predates that change. The now easily transitions into a verb now, as in "They complimented her dress." When applied to people, complimentary is often closely related to flattering.
Or, you can do as the theatre folk do, and just say that the free tickets given to certain audience members are "comps." Then there's no worry about whether to use an e or an i.
On the other side, a complement (noun) is something that is complete. It takes the e from that word and brings to mind shades of Jerry McGuire. So, for example, we can have the full complement of personnel in attendance. The personnel roster is complete at that time. The first attested use of complementary was in the phrase "complementary colors." In this case, the colors complement (verb) each other, which is to say that they bring about a contrasting balance that creates a sort of whole within the color spectrum.
So, Renee Zellweger complements Tom Cruise in the above-mentioned movie, although I don't recall them giving each other a lot of compliments.
The best mnemonic device I've come up with is the title of this post. "May I compliment you on your complement?" meaning something like, "May I praise your completeness?"