'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.’”


Creative Capitals and Symbols in Business Names
Posted by June on April 14, 2014


If businesses had their way, news media would serve no purpose other than to promote them.

Front-page articles would be dedicated to the rich, satisfying flavor of this or that brand of cigarette. Headlines would tout how a sale at a local retailer blows away the competition and is, in fact, the greatest thing to ever happen to readers of that publication. Company names would be in 30-point type everywhere they appeared and bolded and surrounded with dollar signs, too.

Companies’ interests simply aren’t the same as readers’ interests. So for that reason, editors like to keep them reined in. And editing styles include rules to do so.

For example, E*Trade, the online brokerage firm, uses an asterisk in its name. If I were an exec at that company I would, of course, want it to be written that way in print. Helps grow the brand, and all that.

Other companies have different approaches. Capital letters are a big favorite among ATTENTION-SEEKING COMPANIES. Some make their names all caps (ARIA resort), others go all lowercase (smart fortwo), and still others get funky with their caps (iPad). Caps can cry “look at me, know my brand” in the pages of an article that should be serving the reader, not the people who want to take advantage of the reader’s attention to sell him something. That’s what ads are for.

That’s why in many cases editing styles advocate capitalizing and punctuating company names as though they were garden-variety proper nouns. In my editing work, whenever there's mention of those little two-person golf-cart-like cars, I make sure they're written Smart Fortwo, with the first word of each proper noun capitalized. E-Trade gets a hyphen, not an asterisk, and Macy’s gets an apostrophe. And the self-proclaimed ARIA resort is the Aria in any page I’m editing.

Of course, you can’t always get away from funky tradenames. Both Chicago and AP styles say to uppercase the second letter of iPad and iPod. AP says that, at the beginning of a sentence, IPad and IPod start with a capital I, even though the P remains capped. Chicago lets you keep the first letter lowercase even at the beginning of a sentence.

If you don’t have a stylebook handy, you can just follow this simple principle: Don’t let companies use your publication as a marquee. Whenever possible, treat them like most proper nouns, beginning with a capital, proceeding with lowercase and containing no smiley faces, snowflakes or peace signs. When that looks too weird, you can cave a little.

Apostrophes in Plurals
Posted by June on April 7, 2014


I’ve always been pretty opposed to using apostrophe to form plurals, except when absolutely necessary.

Learn your ABCs, not ABC’s.

The company bought some Boeing 747s, not 747’s.

Schools used to focus on the three Rs, not R’s.

It happened during the 1850s, not 1850’s.

In my world, the only time you use an apostrophe to form a plural is when it’s absolutely necessary for clarity. The most common example is in business signs in all capital letters: RETIRMENT PLANS AND IRA’S EVALUATED, DVR’S REPAIRED – stuff like that.

Also when you’re writing a passage that mentions individual letters, like Mind your p’s and q’s and Her name sure has a lot of i’s in it, apostrophes are the only way to show that the s is doing a different job than that of p, q and i.

Otherwise, in the editing rules I follow, apostrophes in plurals are a big no-no.

But, as I’ve learned the hard way, you should never be too quick to judge someone else’s punctuation and grammar, because in their world it just might be right.

This came to mind recently when I opened an old copy of “Words Into Type,” which was once one of the most definitive guides in publishing. Here’s what I read in the section on plurals:

The plural of a letter, figure, character, or sign is expressed by adding to it an apostrophe and s.


Three R’s

During the 1850’s

Boeing 747’s

Anyone who subscribes to my view that apostrophes don’t form plurals and who saw these forms in written text might assume the apostrophes were errors made of ignorance. But in fact, they could be well-informed choices.

The Word 'Girl' Sure Has Changed A Lot
Posted by June on March 31, 2014


Next time you hear someone ranting about how the language is going to hell in a handbasket or complaining about people misusing this or that word, ask him to define the word "girl."

In my experience, "girl" is the best example of why the language Chicken Littles don't have a leg to stand on.

You see, we actually use the word "girl" wrong, according to an older standard, that is. In the 1300s, "girl" meant a child of either sex. Yet today it means only a female child, and we use it to deliberately exclude males.

Think for a moment what it was like getting from that linguistic Point A to our Point B. There must have been a lot of confusion along the way, right? No doubt it gave language doomsayers plenty of fodder. Could you blame any witness to this transition for thinking it was a problem Could you blame him for decrying the ignorance that fueled this change or the chaos that would ensue?

With 700 years' perspective, we know that such doomsayers would have been wrong. The word "girl" as we use it today is perfectly peachy. People aren't confused by it. No one sounds ignorant for using it. Communication hasn't broken down.

In other words, what was once a wrong usage of "girl" is now right. And clearly that's not a bad thing.

When sticklers fuss over "misuse" of words like "literally" and "healthy" and "aggravate," it's because they just don't understand how words change. They don't understand that this evolution is not a bad thing. It just appears bad to anyone who lacks historical perspective.

And nothing proves this as well as a brief history of the word "girl."