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A Word, Please: My compliments to the dictionary

November 17, 2010|By June Casagrande

I'm a big believer in looking things up. People who are baffled by finer points of grammar and usage are often amazed to learn how many mysteries can be solved simply by opening a dictionary.

I'm not just talking about spellings and definitions. If you don't know whether you've drank or drunk your coffee, whether your picture is hanged or hung, or whether you want to stay for a while or stay for awhile, your answers can all be found in a dictionary. (For folks keeping score at home, the abridged answers are: you've drunk your coffee, your picture is hung and you stay for a while.)

But occasionally I come across a language issue on which the dictionary actually adds to the confusion. Specifically, I'm talking about "compliment" and "complement."


The difference between these two words is among the first things an editor learns. When you compliment something, you make a flattering remark. But when a wine complements a meal, that means it goes well with it. Or, as almost any editor will put it, to compliment is "to make a flattering remark about" and to complement is "to go well with."

We know this one so well that most of us haven't bothered to look up either word in years. But if and when we finally do, we realize that our pithy summary is just a wee bit off.

"Complement, transitive verb: to make complete." That's how "Webster's New World College Dictionary," the official reference followed by most news sources in the U.S., puts it. And that's all this resource says. There's no definition in there that says "complement" means "to go well with." To complement is, according to this resource, to complete. Period.

That came as a shock when, after years of being sure I fully understood this word, I looked it up in that Webster's. It caused me to reassess how I use it.

"Complement" often comes up in articles about food and fashion. The quintessential example is that a well-chosen wine complements a meal. Other common uses are found in sentences like "Those shoes perfectly complement that gown" and "The throw pillows complement the décor." See why users think of "complement" as meaning "to go well with"?

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