GrammarBlog

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Comprise versus compose

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There was an excellent post yesterday on Mighty Red Pen explaining how to correctly use the verb 'to comprise'. I have to admit that in the past I've made the following mistake during speech.

  • The sample was . . . comprised of 50 10th grade sections.
  • The team . . . was comprised of educators, policy analysts, education decision makers, and researchers and consultants.
Bill Walsh explains,
Nothing is ever ‘comprised of’ something. To comprise means ‘to contain or to embrace.’” AP Stylebook states, “Compose means to create or put together. It is commonly used in both the active and passive voices. . . . Comprise means to contain, to include all or embrace. It is best used only in the active voice.

Use comprise in the active voice. For example, 'comprises' or 'comprising' are acceptable uses.

HRH MRP finishes the post with a great quote.

At times like these, I like to end with the gentle wisdom of H.W. Fowler, who says sweetly, “This lamentably common use of comprise as a synonym for compose or constitute is a wanton and indefensible weakening of our vocabulary.”

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37 Comments:
Blogger Sharkbait said...

How is that an "indefensible weakening of our vocabulary"? Words get stronger when we use them how we see fit. If I convey the correct and intended meaning to you in my communication, then I've chosen the proper words for you to get my meaning–regardless of what those words are or what the dictionary says they're supposed to mean. Language is ever changing and constantly evolving. Dictionaries and grammar books follow the usage, not the other way around.
(not trying to sound argumentative...just sparking conversation here)

btw, it's unclear in your post which of the first two examples is wrong, and why. I'm trying to figure out if "comprised" is the wrong choice of word in the first example, or if its wrong because it's followed by "of" in that particular context. I can't seem to get that answer anywhere. Can you help?

11 December 2007 at 00:09  
Blogger Gez said...

Hi Sharkbait,

In answer to your question, both of the first two examples are wrong. You could say "composed of" or "comprises".

In regards to your first point, I don't hold with the argument that the meaning of words can change just because you want them to.

11 December 2007 at 08:26  
Blogger caynazzo said...

That still doesn't address Sharkbait's question. There seems to be two separate issues here that are getting conflated: The use of the comprise in the passive voice. and the difference between comprise and compose. If the whole comprises the parts and the parts compose--or, are composed of--the whole, then how can "The sample is composed of 50 10th grade sections" be correct? Doesn't "is composed" relate back to the subject which is the whole?

20 May 2008 at 16:49  
Blogger Gez said...

The whole is composed of the parts.

20 May 2008 at 19:19  
Blogger Robert Miller said...

I once had a dictionary the preface of which had arguments for and against common usage determining proper usage. William F. Buckley wrote in favor of a college of experts determining proper usage. He made a keen argument that experts are the best judges precisely because people pay them to write dictionaries. :)

Sharkbait's argument begs the question. He states that if you understand his meaning, his choice of words is necessarily appropriate. But the main purposes of grammar and definitions are to ensure understanding. When we depart too often from the rules, we risk misunderstanding too often for comfort's sake.

The second objection I have with his argument is an appeal to ignorance. Strunk and White point out that we prefer to paint "flammable" on the side of gasoline trucks lest we confuse children and idiots with the correct word "inflammable." Were we forever to cater to the needs or demands of the ignorant, the uneducated, the stubborn, and the stupid, language would evolve to a level which, compared to Newspeak, would make Orwell blush. If you need an illustration of my meaning, watch the movie "Idiocracy."

I'm quite sure I've made a grammatical error or two in my arguments, but at least I try (as an educated person) to honor our language. Language isn't merely a tool of communication - it's a form of art; and as we're well aware, there are varying qualities of art.

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