April 21, 2014

Working With Quotations

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'Comprise' and 'Compose'
Posted by June on April 21, 2014
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It’s been a long time since I learned the difference between “compose” and “comprise.” So long, in fact, that recently I’ve altogether forgotten how I used to do it. In spite of what I once learned, I keep writing stuff like, “These words do not comprise a complete sentence.”

According to style guides, that’s a mistake. Though dictionaries will cut you more slack. Here’s what style guides recommend.

“‘Compose’ means to create or put together,” the AP Stylebook says. “‘Comprise’ means to contain, to include all or embrace.” 

You could say the whole comprises the parts, but the parts compose the whole. So you’d say a pie comprises many ingredients, or many ingredients compose a pie.

I know that second example sounds weird. That’s because we usually use “compose” in the passive: A pie is composed of many ingredients. But that’s just an inverted way of saying the same thing.

According to style guides, comprise “is best used only in the active voice.” This means it’s frowned upon to use the word “of” after any form of “comprise.” That’s an easy guideline. Nine times out of ten, when a writer has “comprised of,” she meant “composed of” anyway.

But it’s also important to remember that, according to the style guides, one thing comprises many and not the other way around.

Dictionary definitions are more flexible.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary: “comprise. 1. to be made up of (something): to include or consist of (something). 2. to make up or form (something).”

Webster’s New World College Dictionary:  “comprise. 1. to include; contain; 2. to consist of; be composed of: a nation comprising thirteen states 3. to make up; form; constitute: in this sense still regarded by a few as a loose usage: a nation comprised of thirteen states.”

And here’s what Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage recommends: “Our advice to you is to realize that the disputed sense is established and standard, but nevertheless liable to criticism. If such criticism concerns you, you can probably avoid ‘comprise’ by using ‘compose,’ ‘constitute,’ or ‘make up.’”


June Casagrande is a writer and journalist whose weekly grammar/humor column, “A Word, Please,” appears in community newspapers in California, Florida, and Texas. more

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