Compliment or Complement? Discreet or Discrete? Know the Difference Between These Often-Confused Words

Have you ever ended a conversation and then thought of all the things you should have said?

I think we’ve all been there.

That happened to me after I posted about homophones a few weeks ago. I walked away thinking, “Wait, what about this one? Or that one? I should have mentioned that one!”

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So here are seven more commonly confused homophones that can mess with your professional writing.

1. Premier, or premiere?

I have struggled a lot with this one. Even the dictionaries don’t seem to agree on it.

“Premier” is generally used as an adjective, meaning “first” in either time or importance. As in, “Fourth Street is is the premier shopping location in this city.”

It is also used as a noun, meaning a type of rank or position in the government. For example, some countries have a premier instead of a prime minister or president.

“Premiere” is generally used as a verb, meaning to have a first performance, or to be the star performer for the first time. As in, “That play will premiere in London’s West End next season,” or “My daughter premiered in The Nutcracker last Christmas.”

However, it is also sometimes used as a noun to mean the first performance or exhibition, or (even less commonly) a theater’s chief actress.

Even more confusing, “premier” is often used in place of the verb “premiere.”

Basically, if you aren’t sure which spelling to use, leave off the “e.” You’ll be excused.

2. Discreet, or discrete?

“Discreet” is an adjective meaning “private,” “unobtrusive,” or “able to keep a secret.” As in, “The meeting should held in a discreet location to maintain privacy,” or “I can trust my best friend to be discreet when I share my personal struggles with her.”

“Discrete” is also an adjective, but it means “separate” or “distinct.” As in, “This training program includes discrete videos that can be viewed in any order.”

Tell these two apart by remembering that the e’s in “discreet” will “meet,” while the e’s in “discrete” are separate, just like the meaning of the word!

3. Aisle, or isle?

“Aisle” is a passage between two sections that allows traffic to move through. As in, “There was a grocery cart blocking the third aisle, between the rows of canned vegetables.”

“Isle” is a piece of land that is completely surrounded by water. As in, “We went to vacation on the isle of Hawaii.”

You might remember to tell the two apart by thinking that “isle” looks like “idle,” which is how people often are on an island vacation!

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4. Stationary, or stationery?

“Stationary” is an adjective that means “standing still” or “stuck in place.” As in, “I like to exercise on a stationary bicycle.”

Nowadays, “stationery” is a noun that means paper, cards, and envelopes.As in, “I used my best stationery to send my friend a handwritten note.”

(Side note: In the olden days, a stationery was a place where you bought writing materials like paper and pens, but now the word usually just means the materials themselves.)

These are easy to mix up. Remember that “envelope” has a lot of e’s, and it’s a type of stationery.

Not confused enough? How about “a” for “action,” as in … what you don’t have in “stationary”!

5. Compliment, or complement?

It’s not enough that these two words sound the same, but they are also both used as verbs and nouns.

In modern usage, “complement” usually means “to go well with something.” As in, “That blue shirt really complements your hair color.” It can also be used as noun in the same context, as in, “This sauce is a great complement to the chicken.”

“Compliment” can be used as a noun, meaning a courteous gesture or a kind/flattering statement. Such as, “He paid me a compliment the other day.” It is also used as a verb, meaning to deliver such a gesture or statement, as in, “She complimented my children for being so polite.”

You can tell the difference by remembering that “complement” comes from the root word “complete.”

6. Emigrate, or immigrate?

“Emigrate” is a verb that means to move out of one place and live in another. As in, “My ancestors emigrated from the Middle East.”

“Immigrate” is a verb that means to move into a new country or region. As in, “My grandparents immigrated to New York.”

These two are tricky because they are both used in the context of moving from one place to another. Fortunately, it’s easy to remember the difference.

“Emigrate” means a person is leaving, so think of the “e” in both “emigrate” and “escape.”

“Immigrate” means a person is coming in, so think of the “i” in both “immigrate” and “in.”

7. Peak, peek, or pique?

Now here are three different words that sound the same, and get confused frequently. Plus, all three can be used as both nouns and verbs.

“Peak” is a noun that means “the highest point,” as in, “The clouds are hiding the mountain’s peak.” It can also be used as a verb meaning “to reach the highest point,” such as “His football career peaked when he was 25.”

“Peek” is a verb that means “to look,” as in, “You can peek through this crack in the door.” It also is a noun used in the same way, as in, “Take a peek through this keyhole.”

“Pique” is less common nowadays, but we usually use it as a verb that means “to generate, arouse, or excite.” For example, “If you insult him, it could pique his anger,” or “That article about landscaping piqued my curiosity in the topic.”

Less commonly, “pique” is used as a noun to mean a feeling of resentment or injured pride, as in, “After she turned him down for a date, he insulted her in a fit of pique.”

Remember the difference by thinking of the “ea” in both “peak” and “reach,” and how they both refer to high points.

Remember the double-e in both “peek” and “seek,” and how they both refer to some kind of looking.

Think of the “que” in both “pique” and “question,” and how both words are prompted by something.

Don’t let these confusing words mess up your professional image! Remember the difference and never mix up these words again.

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