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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Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant for more than 30 years. He may be best known for his headline “Speak Spanish [French, German, etc.] Like a Diplomat!” This familiar series of ads sold spectacular numbers of recorded foreign language lessons for Audio-Forum, generating revenues that total in the tens of millions of dollars. In the process, the ad achieved the status of an industry classic. Don’s work is mentioned in three major college advertising textbooks, and examples of his promotions are cited in the books Million Dollar Mailings (1992) and World's Greatest Direct Mail Sales Letters (1996). In a column in Advertising Age, his name was included in a short list of direct-marketing “superstars.” He has a parallel career as a writer on language and wordplay. His celebration of spoonerisms, Cruel and Unusual Puns (Dell, 1991), received rave reviews and quickly went into a second printing. His second book was Acronymania (Dell, 1993). Recently, Don retired from full-time copywriting in order to focus on other interests, including his passion for “recreational linguistics.” He is at work on a new book in that genre. He is a regular contributor to the magazine Word Ways and writes “The Language Perfectionist,” a weekly column on grammar and usage, for Early to Rise. Don is author of The Versatile Freelancer,an e-book from American Writers and Artists, Inc. (AWAI) that shows copywriters – and almost anyone – how to diversify their careers into consulting, training, critiquing, and speaking.