I got a bit mixed up just now regarding the difference between "complimentary" and "complementary". My colleagues were arguing about the correct spelling of "complimentary drink" at a nightclub event, and I proposed that it be with an "e" but apparently a free promotional gift is, in fact, spelled with an "i"... Egg on my face!

My question though is if it's always as simple as this. Obviously a glass of wine can also be complementary, if it's specially chosen to go with a meal. (I wonder if any restaurant has ever offered a "complimentary complementary glass of wine", or would that be too silly?)

And it still feels to me as if as "complementary breakfast" could quite logically be one that is included in the bill, "making up the complement" of the price charged. Am I just crazy? Has it always been unequivocally "complimentary" when a service is provided free of charge as a sweetener to a deal? I kind of prefer "complimentary" to relate specifically to compliments. A restaurant owner is not really paying you a compliment by not charging you extra for breakfast, he's just doing business...

  • As a non native speaker, I find those tricky, and in hotel rooms, I always have to think it twice to make sure I wasn't tricked into drinking a water bottle that will be billed me at the price of the best caviar!
    – F'x
    Commented Mar 3, 2011 at 20:19
  • 4
    "Egg on my face" is complimentary; "egg with my face" is complementary.
    – apaderno
    Commented Mar 3, 2011 at 21:28
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    Man goes into a bar and hears a voice saying "nice jacket","you're looking well" he looks around but can't see anyone. Don't worry says the barkeeper - that's just the complementary peanuts!
    – mgb
    Commented Jul 30, 2012 at 1:32

6 Answers 6


complimentary: free on the house - "With compliments from the house"
complementary: to go with something

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    But "that dress really goes with your eyes" is complimentary! (Sorry, I'm being a little facetious now ;) Commented Mar 3, 2011 at 21:36
  • So what about paying her a compliment ;)
    – mplungjan
    Commented Mar 4, 2011 at 7:46
  • You're right, but it's still confusing. Items are posted with a compliment slip. Surely that should be complEment, as in 'going with the item you are posting' rather than 'hey, here's a free piece of paper with the thing you ordered'.
    – Mynamite
    Commented Aug 14, 2014 at 0:07
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    It derives from the with compliments written on it
    – mplungjan
    Commented Aug 14, 2014 at 5:46

Yes, it really is that simple. Complimentary = free.

A possible mnemonic device for you: If it's compl-I-mentary, I get it for free.

  • Yes, I think it is pretty simple to work out which spelling it should be, in any given case. I guess I still feel like "free and on the house" does not completely tally in my mind with the normal meaning of "complimentary", as in, presumably, "like or pertaining to a compliment". Commented Mar 3, 2011 at 21:43
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    @thesunneversets, you could expand your "normal" meaning to "given freely with the intention of making the recipient feel good." :-)
    – Hellion
    Commented Mar 3, 2011 at 21:48

Compl-E-ment = Compl-e-tes something

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    Sure, but I might feel like breakfast in the morning completes my hotel stay package... Commented Mar 3, 2011 at 23:44
  • But from the hotel's perspective, it's complimentary and hence it's termed a complimentary breakfast; there could be patrons who believe that the morning breakfast alone does not complete the hotel stay package :).
    – Nishant
    Commented Mar 4, 2011 at 1:14

I think the basis for "complimentary drink" is the simple fact that it comes with the "compliments of the house"; the compliment presumably being that one is a valued customer and therefore deserves special treatment in the form of a free drink.

Not everyone receives a complimentary drink - except in Vegas ;)


In French, it's "complémentaire" as in "petit déjeuner complémentaire" and therefore it's complementary.

  • 4
    It is utterly invalid logic to assert that because in French a word is such and such that in English is must therefore be such and such.
    – tchrist
    Commented Aug 21, 2014 at 3:02
  • I didn't read any "must" into Alicia's comment, and I find her observation extremely interesting.
    – Yeltommo
    Commented Oct 25, 2018 at 8:55

To me a free breakfast is a complement (goes with) to the room charge...and not a compliment (a positive remark) on any level. Unless the hotel is complimenting me on my choice of their property by providing me breakfast...which seems like a stretch. I may compliment the chef on his choices for my complementary breakfast.

  • 3
    No, breakfasts that come free of charge are complimentary ones, not complementary ones. The OED gives an example of “They have received complimentary tickets for the entertainment.”
    – tchrist
    Commented Jul 30, 2012 at 0:02
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    Your reasoning is sound, but sadly the dictionary doesn't agree.
    – Lynn
    Commented Jul 30, 2012 at 0:57

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