Originally these two spellings were used interchangeably, but they have come to be distinguished from each other in modern times. Most of the time the word people intend is “compliment”: nice things said about someone (“She paid me the compliment of admiring the way I shined my shoes.”). “Complement,” much less common, has a number of meanings associated with matching or completing. Complements supplement each other, each adding something the others lack, so we can say that “Alice’s love for entertaining and Mike’s love for washing dishes complement each other.” Remember, if you’re not making nice to someone, the word is “complement.”
A complement can also be the full number of something needed to make it complete: “my computer has a full complement of video-editing programs.” If it is preceded by “full” the word you want is almost certainly “complement.”
A pole is a long stick. You could take a “poll” (survey or ballot) to determine whether voters want lower taxes or better education.
In normal usage, a handicap is a drawback you can easily remedy, but a disability is much worse: you’re just unable to do something. But many people with disabilities and those who work with them strongly prefer “disability” to “handicap,” which they consider an insulting term. Their argument is that a disability can be compensated for by—for instance— a wheelchair, so that the disabled person is not handicapped. Only the person truly unable by any means to accomplish tasks because of a disability is handicapped. The fact that this goes directly counter to ordinary English usage may help to explain why the general public has been slow to adopt it, but if you want to avoid offending anyone, you’re safer using “disability” than “handicap.”
Many of the people involved also resent being called “disabled people”; they prefer “people with disabilities.”
To be explicit about something is to be clearer than to merely imply it, so it’s not surprising that people wanting to make clear that they really trust someone often mistakenly say that they trust the person “explicitly.” But the traditional expression is that you trust someone “implicitly” because your trust is so strong that you don’t need to say anything explicitly—it goes without saying.
There are several words with Latin or Greek roots whose plural forms ending in A are constantly mistaken for singular ones. See, for instance, criteria and media and data. it’s “this phenomenon,” but “these phenomena.”
FLESH OUT/FLUSH OUT
To “flesh out” an idea is to give it substance, as a sculptor adds clay flesh to a skeletal armature. To “flush out” a criminal is to drive him or her out into the open. The latter term is derived from bird-hunting, in which one flushes out a covey of quail. If you are trying to develop something further, use “flesh”; but if you are trying to reveal something hitherto concealed, use “flush.”
When paying someone a compliment like “I love what you’ve done with the kitchen!” you’re being complimentary. A free bonus item is also a complimentary gift. But items or people that go well with each other are complementary.
In geometry, complementary angles add up to 90°, whereas supplementary ones add up to 180°.
To censor somebody’s speech or writing is to try to suppress it by preventing it from reaching the public. When guests on network TV utter obscenities, broadcasters practice censorship by bleeping them.
To censure someone, however, is to officially denounce an offender. You can be censured as much for actions as for words. A lawyer who destroyed evidence which would have been unfavorable to his client might be censured by the bar association.
A device which senses any change like changes in light or electrical output is a sensor. Your car and your digital camera contain sensors.
A censer is a church incense burner.
These two are often mixed up in speech. If you are doing something in a formal manner, you are behaving formally; but if you previously behaved differently, you did so formerly.
To ravage is to pillage, sack, or devastate. The only time “ravaging” is properly used is in phrases like “when the pirates had finished ravaging the town, they turned to ravishing the women.” Which brings us to “ravish”: meaning to rape, or rob violently. A trailer court can be ravaged by a storm (nothing is stolen, but a lot of damage is done) but not ravished. The crown jewels of Ruritania can be ravished (stolen using violence) without being ravaged (damaged).
To confuse matters, people began back in the fourteenth century to speak metaphorically of their souls being “ravished” by intense spiritual or esthetic experiences. Thus we speak of a “ravishing woman” (the term is rarely applied to men) today not because she literally rapes men who look at her but because her devastating beauty penetrates their hearts in an almost violent fashion. Despite contemporary society’s heightened sensitivity about rape, we still remain (perhaps fortunately) unconscious of many of the transformations of the root meaning in words with positive connotations such as “rapturous.”
Originally, “raven” as a verb was synonymous with “ravish” in the sense of “to steal by force.” One of its specialized meanings became “devour,” as in “the lion ravened her prey.” By analogy, hungry people became “ravenous” (as hungry as beasts), and that remains the only common use of the word today.
If a woman smashes your apartment up, she ravages it. If she looks stunningly beautiful, she is ravishing. If she eats the whole platter of hors d’oeuvres you’ve set out for the party before the other guests come, she’s ravenous.