Mighty Red Pen

December 4, 2007

Comprise versus compose

Filed under: Pet peeves,Spellbound,Word wars — mighty red pen @ 5:44 pm

A piece came across MRP’s desk last week with a pair of examples of the common misuse of comprise where compose would be correct:

  • The sample was . . . comprised of 50 10th grade sections.
  • The team . . . was comprised of educators, policy analysts, education decision makers, and researchers and consultants.

Bill Walsh explains, “Nothing is ever ‘comprised of’ something. To comprise means ‘to contain or to embrace.'” AP Stylebook states, “Compose means to create or put together. It is commonly used in both the active and passive voices. . . . Comprise means to contain, to include all or embrace. It is best used only in the active voice.”

For example, to use comprise correctly, “The Mole’s book collection comprises several novels by Terry Pratchett, a first edition of Dune, and a worn copy of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” To use compose correctly,  “The Mole’s book collection is composed of several novels by Terry Pratchett, a first edition of Dune, and a worn copy of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.”

At times like these, I like to end with the gentle wisdom of H.W. Fowler, who says sweetly, “This lamentably common use of comprise as a synonym for compose or constitute is a wanton and indefensible weakening of our vocabulary.”

11 Comments »

  1. Now that the fits of laughter have died down and I’ve composed myself, the only reason I have Dune in my book collection is because I borrowed it from you.

    Comment by Molie — December 5, 2007 @ 7:27 pm | Reply

  2. [snort] Nicely done, Moley.

    Comment by mightyredpen — December 5, 2007 @ 8:09 pm | Reply

  3. What still isn’t clear to me is whether “comprised” is simply the wrong word to use in the first example, or if it was wrong because it was followed by “of”. Would the sentence be correct if it were “The sample … comprises 50 10th grade sections”?

    Comment by Sharkbait — December 10, 2007 @ 6:57 pm | Reply

  4. Hi Sharkbait, Yes, you’re right: “comprised of” is incorrect. I edited this particular sentence to say “The sample is composed of 50 10th grade sections” but it could also have been correctly changed to “The sample comprises 50 10th grade sections.”

    Comment by mightyredpen — December 10, 2007 @ 7:46 pm | Reply

  5. I thought I was the only person on planet earth left to know that nothing is ever “comprised of” anything. Thank you!

    Comment by Neil C — April 7, 2009 @ 6:58 pm | Reply

  6. According to the Merriam-Webster’s online, this usage of comprise is *not* incorrect.

    http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/comprise

    Comment by Lee — May 21, 2009 @ 12:34 am | Reply

    • Here’s the usage note from Merriam-Webster: “Usage Discussion of COMPRISE: Although it has been in use since the late 18th century, sense 3 is still attacked as wrong. Why it has been singled out is not clear, but until comparatively recent times it was found chiefly in scientific or technical writing rather than belles lettres. Our current evidence shows a slight shift in usage: sense 3 is somewhat more frequent in recent literary use than the earlier senses. You should be aware, however, that if you use sense 3 you may be subject to criticism for doing so, and you may want to choose a safer synonym such as compose or make up.”

      Comment by mighty red pen — November 8, 2010 @ 9:06 am | Reply

  7. […] this explanation of composed/comprised for a fuller understanding of this common grammar […]

    Pingback by Begging for Change « The Lumberjack Critique — April 4, 2010 @ 11:04 am | Reply

  8. I disagree that “comprised of” is incorrect. If you look at the Merriam-Webster definition in comment 6, you will see that they do consider it to be correct and that it has been in use since the late 18th century. There is of course a good reason why it is so persistent despite the criticism by pedants: because it is a useful expression with a clear meaning which fills a need in the language where other words or expressions would be more awkward. Everyone understands perfectly well what it means, even in the example given above: “The sample was . . . comprised of 50 10th grade sections.” The ultimate criterion for usage should as always be simplicity and clarity in conveying meaning which the expression does very well.

    Comment by Nis — October 31, 2010 @ 1:59 pm | Reply

  9. Hi, I teach English as a foreign language in Italy. I found your website as I was researching this very argument. Referring to the New Oxford Dictionary of English (edition 2001) Comprise means “consist of, to be made up of” but it should not be used to say “constitute, or make up (a whole)” (even if it is given as a second sense). “To be composed of” on the other hand means “constitute, make up (a whole)”. Once the meanings of the two words is clear the use actually becomes easier. Referring to the same dictionary previously mentioned, comprise can be used in the passive. However, when it is used in the passive, its meaning changes to that of “make up/constitute”. Languages are not static. The change and evolve. This seems to be the case here. Whereas in the past, this may have cleary been an error, today, it is not. Every year words and phrases are added to our language. This is simply another. (After reading this opinion, if you read the example about “The Mole’s book collection” above, you will note that the two sentences have very different meanings!)

    Comment by Tyrrelled — November 7, 2010 @ 10:43 am | Reply

    • Ps, I have seen the mistake “is” instead of “are”, as well as the missing “y” and “l”🙂 I type to fast for my brain to keep up!!

      Comment by Tyrrelled — November 7, 2010 @ 10:47 am | Reply


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