May 21, 2015

Weekly Language Usage Tips: compliment or complement

Posted in compliment/complement at 6:19 am by dlseltzer

Today’s wlut is brief and is designed to reinforce a topic that we’ve addressed a few times before. But just yesterday, I was reviewing an abstract and read this:

Self-collection was also similar to provider-based sampling and could be used to compliment a clinic-based screening program.

 I don’t want to rehash old lessons, but this seems to be a very common error in our scientific and medical writing, so I’ll try one more time.

Okay here goes.

To compliment means to give praise or show admiration.

The professor complimented her students on their successful completion of the experiment.

The woman complimented the man on his cool tie.

Can a tie ever really be cool? But that’s a different discussion.

To complement means to add to appropriately or adequately.

This new half-cup measuring cup complements my other measuring cups.

Your interesting technique for mixing chemicals complements my existing techniques.

This is the important thing to remember: when it comes to medical or scientific writing, the word you want is complement with an ‘e.’ We almost never use compliment. It’s not that we’re not nice, but in formal writing, we are usually talking about something adding to or completing something, that is, something complements something. In the abstract I was reading, self- collection could be a good complement to clinic-based screening. It complements other methods for screening. In formal writing, it’s almost always complement with with an ‘e.’


I have confidence that you will get this right next time. And that’s a compliment.

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