What is the difference between complete and finish?

Introduction

Within the English language, many words are almost the same, and so similar in fact, that you would be forgiven for using them interchangeably.

And two such words are “complete” and “finished”.

Even though these words might come across as the same thing, there is a difference between the two.

To finish something means for it to come to an end. And to complete something implies that you have made sure everything is there, and everything which is there is good enough.

Today, I want to talk about where these words come from, what gets finished and what gets completed, and does it matter that we use them interchangeably?

Joke

But before we get into that. I want to tell you a joke that goes to show the difference between being complete and being finished.

If a man marries the right woman, he’ll be complete.

If a man marries the wrong woman, he’ll be finished.

But if the right woman catches the man with the wrong woman, he’ll be completely finished.

Whilst this joke might just seem like something your mom would post on Facebook, it actually is a clear way to show differences between the two words.

Complete Etymology

Complete is both an adjective and a verb.

When used as an adjective, it’s describing a thing which is complete. For example, I might say, “my new book is complete.”

It can also be used as a verb. For example, “I will complete my book next week”.

The word complete comes from Latin.

“Com” is to come together. This is where we get the word “Community” from.

“Plete” is also Latin, it means “to fill”. This is where we get “depleted” from.

This word likely came to the UK when the Romans invaded.

It started as an adjective but has since gone onto becoming a verb.

Finished Etymology

“Finish” cannot be a verb or an adjective like “complete” can.

You finish a race- which uses “finish as a verb”.

And afterwards, you will have “finished” the race.

“Finish” comes from the Latin “Finis”. Over time, this went onto becoming “finire”.

When it was picked up by the Old French language, it became “Fenir”. But it soon became Feniss. When it got into Middle English, it became Finish.

For a Latin speaking person, “finis” just means to end. Which is precisely what happens when something is finished, it has come to an end.

What do you finish?

When you finish something, the thing you were doing has now come to an end.

For example, you would finish a race. And it doesn’t matter if you’re running, cycling, driving, swimming. You don’t “complete” a race, you “finish” it.

If you’ve signed up for a free trial of something, be it Spotify, SkilShare, or anything else, you don’t “complete” it, you finish it.

If you’re reading a book, when you have read the last word, you will have “finished” that book. It would make no sense to say that you have “completed” the book.

Generally, if you haven’t created something, and are just using it, you will have “finished” it.

What do you complete?

Now you know what you finish. How about what you complete?

If you’re not reading, but writing a book, when you have written the last line, you could say that your book is “complete” as you will have made sure everything in the book is there and up to standard.

Should you be doing an art project, be it a picture or a sculpture, when everything is ready for the gallery (or your wall), your project will be “complete”.

And if you’re playing a video game, you would rarely say that you’ve “finished” it. Instead, you would say that you’ve “completed” it.

Generally, “completed” is what you should use when talking about creative tasks.

Interchangeability

Even though these two words are ever-so-slightly different, it’s not uncommon to hear them used interchangeably.

This goes to show just how inconsistent and hard to understand our language is. Because the definitions of the two are so similar, you could swap the words around, and most people would still know what you’re talking about.

As the English language is moldable, it doesn’t matter if people misuse these words. So long as people will know what you’re talking about, you’ll be fine.

Complete vs Completed

If you add a “D” to “complete”, you’ll get a word that’s almost the same. “Completed”.

“Complete” can either be a verb or adjective. You can complete a puzzle or have a complete puzzle.

“Completed” can either be a verb or an adjective too. That book you’ve written is completed. But if it’s not, don’t worry, you would have completed it if you had the time.

As a verb, Complete is the presented tense, but completed is the past tense. As an adjective, “complete” is usually in the future tense. Whereas “completed” is generally in the past tense.

Alternatives

There are a whole variety of other ways that you can say either of these words. Some of the following words can be used to describe something which is either Complete or Finished.

“Done” is suitable for informal occasions, or when talking about moral actions “what’s done is done”.

“Concluded” should be used when everything is resolved. It’s ideal if you’re writing a non-fiction paper.

“Ended” is what you could use if you’re talking about things that have come to an end in the distant past. For example, “My career ended when my mother died”.

And “fulfilled” is an excellent alternative to “complete”.

Conclusion

“complete” and “finished” are often used interchangeably, and if you use them this way, most people will still know what you’re talking about.

However, they are not the same.

To finish something means that it has come to an end. But to complete something means you have made sure all the parts of it are there.

Both of them have their origins in Latin.

You finish a race, a trail, or reading a book. You complete an art project, a video game, or writing a book.

There is a very thin line between being complete and being finished.