Q: I believe you botched your discussion of “comprise” last month on WNYC. After saying correctly that the whole comprises the parts, you indicated that it’s wrong to say “the union is comprised of 50 states.” As a copy editor, I was taught that the only objection to “comprised of” here is the minor one of wordiness.
A: I love hearing from copy editors! But I think there’s some confusion here.
It’s true that the whole comprises the parts. Roughly speaking, to “comprise” is to include or contain. I too was a copy editor, for more than 20 years, and as I think I said on the show, that definition was engraved on my brain.
However, “comprised of” is considered bad usage. I was right to describe “the union is comprised of 50 states” as a usage error. In the passive voice, the correct usage is “the union is composed of 50 states.”
Check The American Heritage Dictionary of English Usage (4th ed.) or Garner’s Modern American Usage (3d ed.) or The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage.
The New Fowler’s, for instance, describes “is comprised of” as a “disputed or erroneous” usage. It’s also an illogical one. It would be like saying “is included of.”
In addition to using “composed of” in the example above, another correct version (for those who favor a construction with “of”) would be “the union consists of 50 states.”
I should add, however, that “comprised of” is a very common usage now, and I wouldn’t be surprised if dictionaries accept it as standard English one of these days.
R. W. Burchfield, the editor of The New Fowler’s, noted back in 1996 that opposition to the use of “comprised of” for “composed of” was getting weaker. In case you’d like to read more, I posted a blog item on the subject in 2008.
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