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Complaint vs. Complain: What’s the Difference?

Sometimes, a speaker doesn’t clearly pronounce a letter, like the “t” in “complaint,” making it harder for the person learning English to discriminate between “complain” and “complaint.” Others confuse the function and meaning of the two words and also spell the past tense of “complain” incorrectly. What is the difference between “complaint” and “complain”?

The difference between “complaint” and “complain” is that “complaint” is a noun, and we use it to describe dissatisfaction or discomfort. “Complain” is a verb, and we use it to describe the act of expressing dissatisfaction. Since “complaint” is not a verb, you can never use it as the spelling of the past tense of “complain,” which is “complained.”

Read on and discover the roots of these two words and learn how to use them correctly and avoid confusion.

Complaint vs. Complain: Noun vs. Verb

In most cases, we can use “complain” and “complaint” to convey the same basic message to the reader or listener — they both deal with either the expression or the description of dissatisfaction. 

However, the words do not function the same way as they are two distinct parts of speech: one is a noun, and the other is a verb.

As a noun, a complaint is the expression of pain, dissatisfaction, or discontent. Therefore, a complaint is the content of something you are complaining about. English generally uses it in a negative way, as in “She made a complaint about the lack of hot water.

As a verb, to “complain” is the act of expressing pain, dissatisfaction, or discontent. The distinction between the two is, therefore, that of the expression (noun) and the act of expressing (verb).

Using Complain vs. Complaint

The following examples demonstrate the correct use of the verb “complain” and the noun “complaint.”

Using “complain” as the act of expressing dissatisfaction:

I complain every day about the neighbor’s loud music.

They complain that the bus is always late.

She complains that his harsh tone is unprofessional.

Using “complaint” to refer to a particular expression or statement of dissatisfaction:

My complaint has stopped my neighbor from playing loud music. 

Their complaint is that the bus is always late. 

They attended to her written complaint regarding his harsh tone.

Note that the act of complaining involves making a statement or complaint, so the two are intertwined. Again, it is the difference between expressing annoyance and describing the expression itself as a thing. 

I want to complain about my teacher’s behavior.
I’m supplying you with a written complaint against my teacher.

The employees complained to their union about the loud factory noise.
The employees sent a complaint against the loud factory noise to their union.

Nowadays very few students complain about the parking facilities.
Student complaints about parking facilities are now at the lowest level ever.

The Etymology of Complain and Complaint

Both “complain” and “complaint” entered English around the 14th century from Old French. They came from different forms of the same root word, complaindre.

Complain

“Complain” originates from the stem of the Old French word complaindre, and Vulgar Latin complangere originally meaning “to beat the breast.” The word came to English as a verb in the late 14th century. Complaindre translates into English as “to find fault,” “to criticize,” and “to express dissatisfaction” (source).

It means that when you complain, you are making a formal accusation to a person or an authority about something dissatisfactory. You also use “complain” when you tell somebody about your bodily ailment and pain.

Since the 14th century, “complain” has meant to  “utter expressions of grief or pain.” 

Complaint

“Complaint” also originates from Old French. It comes from the French word complainte, the noun usage of the Latin feminine past participle of complaindre. Complainte translates to English as “lament.”    

From the 14th century on, English speakers and writers have used “complaint” as a noun. Since then, the word has described a statement of lamentation, disapproval, or grievance. 

From the early 1700s, “complaint” also had the meaning “state of bodily ailment.” 

Since the words appeared in English in the 14th century, writers have never used them interchangeably. “Complain” has always functioned as a verb and “complaint” as a noun.

Other Noun Forms: Complainant, Complainer, and Complainee

It’s probably no coincidence that these words emerged as the English legal system underwent development in the 14th century. Let’s have a look at a few of the related noun forms, whether regarding legal cases or common use.

Complainant and Plaintiff

You call the person who brings a civil lawsuit against somebody the complainant. In contrast, the person who the official complaint is against is the plaintiff.

Complainer and Complainee

More commonly, a complainer is a person who complains in conversations or writing. You are technically a complainer if you only complain, but we often use “complainer” to describe someone who complains habitually. The person who the complaint is about is the “complainee.”

Difference Between “Grievance” and “Complaint”

We’ve now explained the differences between “complain” and “complaint,” but people also very often use “complaint” when they actually mean ”grievance” and vice versa. Let’s look at the basic difference between a grievance and a complaint.

A complaint is always related to the verb “complain.” If you complain to somebody about something that affects you negatively, you have a complaint.  

However, a grievance does not necessarily have a relation with the verb “grieve.” You generally use “grieve” for feelings regarding the loss of a loved one. A grievance, however, is an emotional state towards something that affects you negatively and that you deem wrong.

The main difference is that you communicate complaints to other people, while you don’t have to share your grievances with others as it is a very personal feeling you have. Still, a grievance may turn into a complaint if the person acts on those feelings.

In official business, however, many use the more formal “grievance” for serious complaints. You will tell somebody that your main grievance is your employer’s harassment of you. Note that we do not use any preposition with the word “grievance” in this context.

What Is the Plural of Complaint?

The noun “complaint” can be countable or uncountable. In general, people use “complaint” as either a singular or plural noun. For example, we normally say that someone has lodged a complaint. The complaint can consist of many aspects the person is complaining about, but you refer to it as one complaint (source).

However, people use “complaints” sometimes regarding various types of complaints or a collection of complaints.

To illustrate the correct way to use “complain,” “complaint,” and “complaints,” look at the following sentences: 

The principal received the student’s written complaint in which each student complains about the lack of parking space and recreational areas. Still, it is only one of many complaints he has received during the month.

Verb Tenses of Complain

In addition to “complain,” the other verb forms include the present tense “complains” and the past tense “complained.” Let’s examine these closer.

Simple Present Tense

“Complain” is a verb in the simple present tense, meaning we can say “I/you/they complain” and “he/she/it complains.” 

We use this tense for an action that happens now or that happens regularly. 

They complain every day about the same things. 

In the simple present tense, most verbs remain in the root form, except in the third-person singular, where it ends on -s (source).

She complains every day about the same thing.

It’s essential to note that “complains” is a verb in the third-person singular, while “complaints” is the plural of the noun “complaint.”

Simple Past Tense

The simple past tense of “complain” is “complained.” You use this tense for an action that took place in the past. 

Yesterday, he complained about the dog barking in the garden. 

Note that “complained” is the past tense for the verb “complain.” We never use “complaint” as a  verb, though they might sound similar at times.

Present and Past Perfect

One uses “complained” as a verb in the present perfect tense and the past perfect tense. If something has happened already before the present action or situation, you use the present perfect tense. 

The window in her room is broken, and she has complained about it already.

When you describe an action or situation before another action in the past, you use the past perfect tense. 

After he had complained about the broken lock, the handyman fixed it yesterday. 

Using the Adverb Complainingly

The correct adverb for “complain” is “complainingly.” We can also use adverbs to modify the verb “complain” to describe the way someone complained.

They moved complainingly into the Covid-19 isolation ward.

They bitterly complained about the move to the Covid-19 isolation ward.

Still, we don’t see the adverb “complainingly” very often in English. Linguists also calculated that of the two words, “complains” and “complaints,” English speakers use “complaints” about four times more frequently than “complains” in written sources (source).

Using Prepositions with Complain and Complaint

As verbs, you’ll often see “complain” and “complaining” followed by prepositions like “about” and “to.”

They complain about the bad behavior of the players on the field. 

They are now complaining to the coach. 

As nouns, you’ll often see “complaint” and “complaints” followed by prepositions like “against,” “from,” or ‘by.”

Their complaint against the bad behavior of the players is receiving attention.

The coach received many complaints from spectators regarding the behavior of the players.

One receives a complaint from someone or receives a complaint by someone.

And, sometimes, you don’t use a preposition at all, like in “We have a well-designed complaints procedure.”

In some contexts, you can use more than one preposition with the noun “complaint” without substantively changing the meaning of the sentence or phrase. Consider the following two examples.

I want to make a complaint about the dog’s owner.

I want to make a complaint against the dog’s owner.

Applying Both Words to Issues of Health

Doctor, Patient, Consultation, Discussion, Psychiatrist
Image by Sozavisimost via Pixabay

We’ll often hear someone use either “complain” or “complaint” to refer to health issues. Look at the following to see the different usage. 

Complain

When someone uses “complain” with the preposition “of,” they’re generally referring to symptoms of an illness or the pain itself. 

All the children who have visited the restaurant complain of stomach pain.

You can also use “complain” or “complaining” to describe a groan or creak under strain. One can, as an example, describe pain in your leg after physical exercises by referring to it as the muscles in your leg complaining because of the strain.

Complaint

Some use “complaint” to refer to an illness or a medical condition, especially a relatively minor one. 

He went to a medical doctor to get treatment for his skin complaint.

Common Sources of Confusion

There are also other reasons apart from the verb-noun issue for why some English speakers, especially especially as a second language, sometimes confuse “complain” and “complaint.”

Again, many will not pronounce the “t” in “complaint” clearly in casual conversation, so those unfamiliar with the language are likely to misunderstand. If the listener is not a mother-tongue speaker and is still learning the language, they don’t pick up on the difference between the words. 

It’s also a relatively easy typo to make since there’s only a one-letter difference between the two.

Unless someone makes them aware of the difference between “complain” and “complaint,” they can easily conflate “complaint” with “complained” or even “complain” with “complaint.” This article was written for strategiesforparents.com

For more on spelling and verb tense, read our article “Eaten or Ate: Past Tense vs. Past Participle.

Final Thoughts

As in any language, people use some words and phrases incorrectly. Often, even mother-tongue speakers make the same mistakes. So, if you are a student learning English, there’s no need to complain if you don’t have mastered all the finer nuances of words yet.

Here’s one quick tip on how to remember whether “complaint” is a noun or a verb: we use nouns to refer to things. Since “complaint” is a noun, and you spell it with a “t,” remember that “t” stands for “things.”