February 26, 2015

Weekly Language Usage Tips: comprise or compose

Posted in comprise at 6:22 am by dlseltzer

A reader writes:

I come to you today with another question, that is: the words comprise versus compose.

This came up for me when I was writing an internal success story for my work. I had originally written “This deal comprises 300 licenses of…” However, my coworker gave me this feedback: “You fixed this correctly, but [our internal style guide] says to cut comprise when you see it, because people don’t know how to properly use it. I’d go with ‘consists of.'”

I realize I may be trying to split hairs with this topic, but I feel that this can be a significant element of a person’s individual style, and could thus reflect badly on that author. I know I like to use the word, and I personally don’t want people to think I’m a bad writer because they don’t actually know how to use the word comprise correctly.

We have talked about this before (four times, in fact), but it’s a tough one so it’s worth going over again. This email touches on several issues. The first has to do with the meaning of comprise and how it is used. Comprise means ‘consists of’ or ‘includes,’ and our reader used it absolutely correctly. The thing to remember is that it means consists OF, so you would never say that something is comprised of—the ‘of’ is already built in—it would be like saying ‘consists of of’, and nothing ‘IS comprised,’ ‘something COMPRISES.’ This is a little tricky, but remember this, you don’t use ‘is’ or ‘of’ with comprise. That’s the first tricky thing.

New England comprises Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts.

You could also say:

New England consists of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts.

If you wanted to use the ‘is,’ you could say:

New England is composed of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts.

The other tricky thing about comprise is this: the whole comprises the parts. So, while New England (the whole) comprises those five states (the parts), the five states could never comprise New England.

But I have to add one thing: the use of ‘is comprised of’ is ubiquitous, and I fully expect that language will devolve to the point that this usage will be acceptable. But not quite yet. Let’s let the word retain its uniqueness for a little while.

Yikes! There are a lot of things to remember about comprise. By the way, the New England example is given as a tribute to my poor sister who lives on Cape Cod and is still digging out from under many feet of snow!

That is the first thing that I wanted to say. The second thing refers to the style manual mentioned by the reader. This is just my personal opinion, but I think it is perfectly dreadful that a style book would suggest that someone should not use a word just because some people don’t know how to use it. We should not pander to the lowest common denominator. Give your audience some credit! Simply dreadful. I agree with the reader’s sentiments in this regard. And he has my complete sympathy.

That being said, this is the third thing I wanted to say: the reader indicated that the style manual was an internal one and not a general one like Chicago. I certainly hate pandering, but if there is any chance at all that the reader could be dinged by his organization for ignoring the internal style guide, I would recommend that he makes the substitution. The word choice is not worth getting dinged in any way, and the reader will still know in his heart, that he is on the side of the angels.



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