• Words

Fear Of English: complement vs. compliment

This came up today at work. I was working on a subtitle file for an audio commentary on an episode of Private Practice. Which episode is not important. Okay, it was called “In Which Dell Finds His Fight.” The title pretty much summarizes the thing, but here’s TV Guide’s summary:

Oceanside focuses on fertility and starts a dads-to-be class; Sam and Naomi struggle to figure out where their relationship is heading; Addison is conflicted about her status in the dating world; Cooper begins a secret affair with a colleague.

That’s not really relevant. I just wanted to share.

On the commentary are Taye Diggs (pictured, far right) and Chris Lowell (far left). And there comes a scene in which Kate Walsh and Audra McDonald are walking down a hall. You can almost hear Diggs and Lowell drool as they discuss the outfits the women are wearing. Diggs says, “Complementary outfits” and Lowell adds, “Complementary outfits, yes. Flattering.”

That’s how the subtitles were written. COMPLEMENTARY. And I had to fight the urge to change it to COMPLIMENTARY. I know the difference. If I compliment the dinner you just cooked, I loved it. If I complement it, I brought french fries. So in what way is the word being used here? What is the meaning?

There is such a thing as complementary clothing. As one might imagine, it’s clothing that belongs together, or is part of an overall outfit. But these were two outfits–dresses, actually–worn by two women, and they didn’t necessarily go together in that sense.

And Lowell actually says, “flattering,” which implies that the clothing was paying Walsh and McDonald a compliment, and not just a compliment but possibly an undeserved one. In fact, this clothing may have been downright sycophantic. Still, I think that was the meaning they were after. And though I can see the angle that suggests the dresses went with the natural “womanhood” of the actresses in question to form a complete whole, I doubt that’s the answer.

In spite of my misgivings, I left it COMPLEMENTARY, partly because, as Diggs himself says on the commentary track, all of ten people will probably listen anyway, and by my own estimate, of that ten, maybe only, like, eight, will turn on the subtitles.

But also, I didn’t want anyone to think they meant that the outfits were free.

Was I right to leave it? Is there an obvious meaning of complementary related to couture that I’ve missed? Let me know. I’m still working on the file, so there’s time to change it.


  1. Posted June 26, 2008 at 12:18 am | [link]

    I think maybe change it, huh? I think you want to. I would. But then, I get irritated by hyphens separating numbers instead of n-dashes, so I may not be a great normal person yardstick on this sort of thing.

  2. Posted July 2, 2008 at 3:38 pm | [link]

    Clearly, the outfits were free.

  3. Inoneesob
    Posted June 11, 2011 at 11:44 am | [link]

    hi amazing thread we have going here.

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