A Cacophony of Confusables

An ETR reader writes: “Could your language columnist look into the correct usage of ‘complimentary’ and ‘complementary’?”

The word “complimentary,” with an “i,” means free. It’s also the adjectival form of “compliment,” an expression of praise. On the other hand, “complementary,” with an “e,” means completing or making up a whole. Here’s an example of the correct use of the latter word: “Rather than contradicting each other, the two historians’ seemingly different views on the Renaissance are in fact complementary.”

Here are a few more “confusables” that I frequently encounter:

• The verb “augur” means predict; an “auger” is a tool for boring or drilling.

• The word “baited” means used as a lure; “bated” means abated or suspended, most commonly in such expressions as, “He anticipated being fired with bated breath.”

• An introduction to a book is a “foreword” (fore + word), not a “forward.” Incidentally, a foreword is traditionally written by someone other than the book’s author. If the author writes it, it’s a preface.

• The word “peek” means look; a “peak” is the top of a mountain; “pique” is irritation or resentment.

• If you mean courtesy or diplomacy, say “tact,” not “tack.”

The list of similar-sounding words that are commonly mixed up is almost infinite. So we’ll revisit the subject in future columns.

[Ed Note: For more than three decades, Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant. He is author of The Versatile Freelancer, an e-book recently published by AWAI that shows writers and other creative professionals how to diversify their careers into speaking, consulting, training, and critiquing.]

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