Clearing up compliment vs. complement

June 29, 2015
Photo: AP

A brochure arrived via email the other day, offering a tour of some property in Florida and a “complementary” three-day vacation.

It’s true that the tour and the vacation might go well together, but the word the brochure writer wanted was “complimentary,” a synonym for “free.”

The only difference between them spelling-wise is a single letter, and the intent is clear most of the time. Still, the distinction is worth preserving.

One possible source of confusion between “complementary” and “complimentary” is the other meaning of “complimentary”: “expressing courtesy, respect, admiration, or praise,” as Webster’s New World College Dictionary says.  

“Complementary” means “making up what is lacking in one another,” as WNW says, or “things that fit together to form a whole,” as The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage says.

So when you say to someone that his shirt and tie are “complementary,” meaning they look well together, you are paying him a “compliment.” Easy to confuse one for the other.

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“Complementary” is used frequently to describe using alternative medicine to “complement” traditional medicine, or in business discussions about “complementary” systems or practices that need to work together well to achieve a better result. Rarely do those contexts use the incorrect “complimentary.”

Garner’s Modern American Usage lists the use of “complementary” when “complimentary” is intended at Stage 1 of the five-stage Language-Change Index, meaning it’s still a mortal language sin. Nevertheless, the confusion is fairly common.

The difference can be subtle. For example, in a recent tribute to Jerry Tarkanian, the Hall of Fame basketball coach, a photo caption said a restaurant owner had invited “Tarkanian friends and fans to a reception honoring the life of his friend including a complementary cocktail that Tarkanian enjoyed.” A portrait of Tarkanian shows him with a cigar in one hand and a drink in the other. So was the restaurant owner giving out “free” drinks, or drinks that “complemented” Tarkanian’s lifestyle?

The easy way to make the intention clear is to use “free” instead of “complimentary,” or, as Strunk and White might say, go for the 10-cent word instead of the $10 one. “At no cost” will work, too, stuffier than “free” but not quite as pretentious as “complimentary.” (By the way, “free gift” is redundant. If it’s a gift, it’s “complimentary.”)

Can you say “for free” instead of just plain “free”? Yes, depending. The New York Times calls “for free” too colloquial and suggests avoiding it, but it’s a common idiom. You don’t need it all the time, though: “She offered me a cocktail for free” sounds fine, but so does “She offered me a free cocktail.”

Let’s end this with an old joke to illustrate the two meanings of one word:

A guy sitting at the bar hears someone say, “Hey, that’s a really nice suit.” He looks around, but there’s no one nearby except the bartender. He asks the bartender if he said it. The bartender says he did not, but gestures to a bowl on the bar next to the customer. “I’ll bet it was the peanuts,” the bartender says. “They’re complimentary.”

Any groans that result from that joke would be “complementary.”

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.