Q: I read this on Smithsonian.com: “Four presidents have received the Nobel Peace Prize including Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama.” Shouldn’t “include” refer to only some of the items on a list, not all of them?
A: When the verb “include” is used to mean “contain,” it usually refers to part of a whole, not all of it. And when the preposition “including” is used in that sense, it too usually refers to only part of something.
However, both the verb and the preposition are sometimes used for all the parts—a usage that’s been around for hundreds of years and may be closer to the Latin source of the words.
Most standard dictionaries say “include” (or “including”) refers to only part of a whole, but some say either word can refer to all the parts. Usage guides are similarly divided. As for us, we use “include” and “including” for part of something, not all of it.
Getting back to your question, that passage you quote (a subtitle in a Feb. 13, 2015, Smithsonian article commemorating Presidents’ Day) is unusual, but it’s not necessarily wrong.
Interestingly, the subtitle changed when the article was rewritten for a Feb. 19, 2020, post on Tween Tribune, a Smithsonian website for kids: “Four presidents have received the Nobel Peace Prize. They include Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama have also won.”
The rewrite conforms with the usual practice, but it’s clunkier. If we were writing the subtitle, we’d do it this way: “Four presidents have received the Nobel Peace Prize: Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Jimmy Carter, and Barack Obama.”
As for the etymology, English borrowed the verb “include” in the early 15th century from Anglo-Norman, but its ultimate source is the classical Latin verb includere (to enclose, confine, surround, and so on).
When the verb first appeared in late Middle English, it had the Latin sense (to surround). The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, describes a battle in which the Greeks surround Hector during the Trojan War:
“Cruelly þei gan hym to include … He myȝt nat eskape with þe lyf” (“Cruelly they began to surround him … he might not escape with his life”). From Troy Book (1412-20), an epic poem about the rise and fall of Troy by the English poet and monk John Lydgate.
In the mid-15th century, the verb took on the sense you’re asking about, referring to part of a whole and sometimes all of it. Here’s the OED definition: “To contain as part of a group, category, etc.; to have as any of a number of sections, members, constituent elements, etc. Sometimes also: to consist of (all of the parts making up the whole); to comprise.”
Oxford’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded, refers to part of a whole: “If you list, take the moralité! / Profitable to every comunalté, / Whiche includithe in many sundry wise, / No man shuld, of high or low degré, / For no prerogatif his neyghburghe to dispise.” From “The Horse, the Goose, and the Sheep,” a short poem by Lydgate, believed written around 1440.
The dictionary has some ambiguous examples from the 16th and 17th centuries in which “include” may possibly imply all the parts of a whole. The first definite citation for that sense, which we’ve expanded, is from an 18th-century book about substances used as medical remedies:
“The Class of the Metals, according to these Characteristicks, includes only six Bodies, which are, 1. Gold. 2. Silver. 3. Copper. 4. Tin. 5. Iron. And 6. Lead.” From A History of the Materia Medica, 1751, by John Hill, an English physician and writer.
The preposition “including” showed up in the 17th century. Although the OED says it refers to “part of the whole group or category being considered,” the dictionary’s examples use the term for both part and all of a whole.
The earliest citation refers to part of a group: “Four servants died, including the cook.” From a letter written Dec. 4, 1638, and published in The English Factories in India (1914), by William Foster.
However, the next Oxford example refers to all members of a group: “Sixteen hundred Children, including Males and Females, put out to Methods of Industry” (the Spectator, Feb. 6, 1712).
Seven of the ten online standard dictionaries we regularly consult say “include” (or “including”) refers to part of a whole.
American Heritage, for example, defines “include” as “to contain or take in as a part, element, or member.” And Merriam-Webster Unabridged defines it as “to place, list, or rate as a part or component of a whole or of a larger group, class, or aggregate: included a sum for tips in his estimate of expenses.”
However, Dictionary.com, based on the old Random House Unabridged, defines “include” more broadly, and has an example that lists all the parts of something: “to contain, as a whole does parts or any part or element: The package includes the computer, program, disks, and a manual.”
And Lexico, the former Oxford Dictionaries Online, also defines “include” broadly, giving examples of its use for all as well as part of a whole:
“Comprise or contain as part of a whole: the price includes dinner, bed, and breakfast; other changes included the abolition of the death penalty.” In a usage note, Lexico explains why “include” can mean either all or part of something:
“Include has a broader meaning than comprise. In the sentence the accommodation comprises 2 bedrooms, bathroom, kitchen, and living room, the word comprise implies that there is no accommodation other than that listed. Include can be used in this way too, but it is also used in a non-restrictive way, implying that there may be other things not specifically mentioned that are part of the same category, as in the price includes a special welcome pack.”
Even some standard dictionaries with the narrower definition of “include” have examples that suggest a broader usage. Macmillan, for example, defines “include” as “to contain someone or something as a part,” but has this example suggesting everything: “The price includes dinner, bed, and breakfast.”
And several dictionaries use “comprise”—which (as Lexico notes) implies all items listed—in defining “include.” Webster’s New World, for instance, defines “include” as “to have as part of a whole; contain; comprise.”
Some usage guides insist that “include” should refer to only part of a whole, and recommend using such terms as “comprise” or “consist of” when referring to all the parts of something.
For example, the entry for “include” in Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.) says, “The word has traditionally introduced a nonexhaustive list but is now coming to be widely misused for consists of.”
However, some other usage guides disagree. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, for instance, cites two examples in which “include” is used with a complete list of items, and says, “There is nothing wrong with either of those examples.”
Merriam-Webster’s says critics of the usage “have somehow reasoned themselves into the notion that with include all of the components must not be mentioned, which has never been the case.”
M-W quotes Henry W. Fowler, perhaps the most influential usage commentator of the 20th century, as saying in the 1926 first edition of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, “With include, there is no presumption (though it is often the fact) that all or even most of the components are mentioned.”
Jeremy Butterfield, editor of the fourth edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, cites the same passage. In practice, he says, “include” is generally used for part of a whole, but Fowler “did not maintain this absolute distinction: his wording allowed for the possibility that include covers all parts of the whole.”
Yes, a case can be made for using “include” for all parts of a whole, but we choose not to use it that way. Since “include” usually refers to part of something, it might be confusing to use it otherwise.
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