Compose vs. comprise

Comprise means to consist of or to be composed of. Compose means to make up the constituent parts of. Parts compose the whole, and the whole comprises the parts. For example, we could say that the United States comprises 50 states and that the 50 states compose the United States.

But comprise is widely used in illogical ways, mainly in phrases such as is comprised of. For example, many people would write that the United States is comprised of 50 states even though they obviously mean compose instead of comprise. This usage is so widespread that trying to stop it is probably a lost cause, and we increasingly have to turn to editorially fastidious publications to find comprise used the old way. Still, careful writers tend to avoid the mixup.

Here are a few examples of comprise used well in its traditional sense:

The development – on a site which used to comprise one large house and a tennis court – has been going on for a couple of years now. [Guardian]

Mr. Litterst said the incident management team comprised 238 Park Service employees from around the country. [New York Times]

The first is that a monetary union comprising 16 or more EU members will ultimately require a fully fledged fiscal union, or fail. [Financial Times]

The transitional government comprises members of both the ruling party and the opposition. [Washington Post]

6 thoughts on “Compose vs. comprise”

  1. Thank you for this comparison and examples of appropriate usage. I always wrestle with the word “comprise” — it just feels like an action word so I inevitably end up using it in one of the “illogical ways” usually “is comprised of”.

  2. I guess that makes me a “fastidious” editor, for whom gaffes such as this comprise one of my more minor pet peeves. What an easy and effective contribution toward stomping out that perditious, passive voice.

    • This is a problematic construction, Jim, and evinces the inherent difficulty of using “comprise” correctly. If you accept that the whole “comprises” the parts (i.e., “the house comprises seven rooms,” rather than “seven room comprise the house”), then shouldn’t it be your “pet peeve” (regardless of how distractingly minor it is or how multiple your list of peeves might be) that “comprises gaffes such as this”? Contrary to your construction, I believe the gaffes COMPOSE your “pet peeve,” while the pet peeve COMPRISES the gaffes.

      I admit, however, that the more I think about this, the more confused I get.

  3. Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style states that “comprise” is similar in meaning to “embrace.” Their example is that a zoo comprises various animals while the animals (and presumably their enclosures and attendants) compose the zoo. I’ve always found this helpful in remembering the distinction. Parenthetically, I suspect that my usage of “while” above is in violation of one of S&W’s rules.

  4. I don’t understand… I was taught the opposite of your third sentence: “The whole is composed of the sum of its parts; the sum of its parts comprise the whole.” Now I’m REALLY confused!


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