March 31, 2010

Language Tips: Comprise & placement of only

Posted in comprise at 3:07 pm by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Once more: comprise

A reader writes:

Is there something wrong with this sentence or is it my imagination?

“Without the creation of a viable contiguous Palestinian state, comprised of a land area equivalent to all of the West Bank and Gaza . . ., it is impossible to imagine a Jewish and democratic future for Israel.” New Yorker, March 29, p42

The New Yorker! What’s happened to standards?

My response:

I see two errors — the use of contiguous–something has to be contiguous to (abutting) something and comprised of – should be comprising a land area.

We’ve addressed the problems people have using comprise a couple of times. My thinking is that if we do this one more time, then we will all get it, and no-one will ever use it incorrectly again. Right? I thought so. Let’s get started.


What comprise does not mean: comprise does not mean ‘ to compose.’

This study is comprised of three phases. WRONG


This study is composed of three phases. RIGHT

What comprise does mean: comprise means ‘ to consist of.’

The grant proposal comprises discussion of each of the phases of the study. RIGHT

The whole comprises the parts.

The book comprised twenty chapters and a dedication. RIGHT


The brownies were comprised of sugar, chocolate, butter, and other good things. WRONG

Fowler calls using ‘is comprised of’ “a wanton and indefensible weakening of our vocabulary.” And I have to agree.


Thus, ends the first part of the lesson. Comprise means ‘to consist of’ not ‘compose.’

The whole comprises the parts, but the parts DO NOT comprise the whole

Comprise always refers to the whole. This is the tricky bit, and the part that you might have a hard time getting your head around. Me, too, (I even went back and checked to see if I had used it correctly in my previous discussions (, and it is with much relief, that I tell you that I had. Whew!)

Remember, above, when we talked about the proposal comprising the discussions of the study’s phases? Well, that’s fine, but what if we put the sentence like this?

The three phases of the study comprised the focus of the grant proposal.

Guess what? That’s WRONG.


That is because comprise always refers to the whole, not the parts that make up the whole.

The United States comprises 50 states. RIGHT


Fifty states comprise the United States. WRONG.

I’m sorry.


This may seem confusing, so let me try another example.

The encyclopedia comprises 26 volumes, one for each letter of the alphabet. RIGHT

[ASIDE: I knew I would be dating myself when I used the term, ‘encyclopedia,’ but I didn’t expect my technology to confirm that for me. But as I dictated this, using Dragon Naturally Speaking, the program did not recognize the term ‘encyclopedia’ until I trained it. On the other hand, it knew ‘Wikipedia’ right off the bat.]

26 volumes, one representing each letter of the alphabet, comprise the encyclopedia. WRONG

Does that help? I was afraid of that. Maybe I’ll come back to this aspect of ‘comprise’ once again. Later, much later.


Tip 2: Placement of only

A couple of weeks ago (, I wrote this:

Often, when used this way, ‘that’ can be omitted; however, it can only be omitted when the meaning of the sentence remains clear without it.

A reader saw that and wrote:

On a nit-picky note, I’ve usually thought that “only” should go closest to the condition it delineates (I’m saying it badly). So, the first sentence (below) implies that other things could happen to or be done to ‘that’ (not just omission; perhaps it could be italicized or shouted, and the sentence tries to make clear that it can ONLY be omitted, and not shouted, not italicized, not ANYTHING other than omitted…), whereas what we really want it to make clear is that there is but one circumstance in which ‘that’ can be omitted. Therefore, I would have thought that sentence 2 is preferable to sentence 1:


1. Often, when used this way, ‘that’ can be omitted; however, it can only be omitted when the meaning of the sentence remains clear without it.

2. Often, when used this way, ‘that’ can be omitted; however, it can only be omitted only when the meaning of the sentence remains clear without it.

What do you think?

When I looked into this, I found that language mavens were all over the place on this. Even Garner and Fowler disagreed, which is something they rarely do. Some say it should be close to the word it modifies, others say it should follow the verb, and still others say it should be placed to clarify the meaning of the sentence.


For me, this falls under the category of ‘ life is too short.’ As long as the meaning of the sentence is clear, I’m not going to fret. I like what Random House said about it in its usage note, “The placement of ONLY as a modifier is more a matter of style and clarity than of grammatical rule.”

If you want, I’ll delineate the various points of view in a later post. For now, let’s enjoy that there is at least one thing we don’t have to worry about.


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