The Grammarphobia Blog

Calm and composed

Q: Now that the verb “comprise” has come to mean “compose,” what word are we supposed to use for the old meaning of “comprise”?

A: “Comprise,” as you’ve noticed, has become ambiguous through misuse.

The traditional rule is that the whole “comprises” (consists of, includes, or contains) the parts, and the parts “compose” (constitute or make up) the whole.

The whole, meanwhile, is “composed of” its parts, not “comprised of” them, as people are increasingly saying and writing.

My advice is to stay away from “comprised of” altogether. It makes no sense, and to a stickler it makes you sound uninformed. In addition to saying something is “composed of” this, that, and the other, you can say it “includes” or “consists of” or “is made up of” them.

As I said, that’s my advice, but “comprised of” is now a very common usage, and dictionaries are bound to accept it without qualification one of these days.

R.W. Burchfield, the editor of The New Fowlers Modern English Usage, said in 1996 that opposition to the use of “comprised of” for “composed of” was getting weaker. He was right.

Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) agree with Burchfield that opposition to the usage is abating.

But the two dictionaries warn that you’re still likely to be criticized by traditionalists for using “comprised of” to mean “composed of.”

Buy Pat’s books at a local store or Amazon.com.