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Writers Talk About Writing

Grammar Bite: "Compose" vs. "Comprise"

Erin Brenner of Right Touch Editing provides "bite-sized lessons to improve your writing" on her engaging blog The Writing Resource. Here Erin tackles the tricky distinction between compose and comprise.

Which of these sentences is correct? (Hint: more than one maybe correct.)

  • Three chapters and a glossary comprise the entirety of the book.
  • Three chapters and a glossary compose the book.
  • The book was comprised of three chapters and a glossary.
  • The book was composed of three chapters and a glossary.
  • The book comprises three chapters and a glossary.

As you might have guessed, today we're tackling the compose/comprise argument. Careful writers and editors have definite opinions on whether the two words are interchangeable and whether is comprised of is acceptable. Let's start with a couple dictionary definitions.

According to Merriam-Webster's unabridged dictionary, comprise means "to include especially within a particular scope : sum up...<a whole religion comprised within one book> comprised in the party slogan>." It defines compose, in part, as meaning:

1 a : to form by putting together two or more things, elements, or parts : put together : FASHION – now usually in passive <composed body> <composed of delegates from every state in the union> b : to form the substance of : CONSTITUTE <composed his personality> – now used chiefly in passive <composed of many ingredients>

American-Heritage defines comprise as "to consist of; be composed of" and "to compose; constitute," noting the usage problem with the latter definition. It defines compose as "to make up the constituent parts of; constitute or form," pointing to its usage note at comprise.

In its collegiate dictionary, Merriam-Webster notes that a usage like "The book was comprised of three chapters and a glossary" is "still attacked as wrong" although it's been in use for over 300 years. M-W is seeing comprised of in more literary uses but warns the writer may be taken to task for it. Best to play it safe, it suggests, and choose something like "The book comprises three chapters and a glossary."

What I like about American Heritage is that it doesn't suggest that someone has her knickers in a twist for wanting to be precise in her writing and lays out the issue in plain English:

The traditional rule states that the whole comprises the parts and the parts compose the whole. In strict usage: The Union comprises 50 states. Fifty states compose (or constitute or make up) the Union. Even though careful writers often maintain this distinction, comprise is increasingly used in place of compose, especially in the passive: The Union is comprised of 50 states.Our surveys show that opposition to this usage is abating. In the 1960s, 53 percent of the Usage Panel found this usage unacceptable; in 1996, only 35 percent objected.

Both dictionaries, one more prescriptive, the other more descriptive, suggest that comprise can be used for compose and comprise of is increasingly used and acceptable, though careful writers should avoid both.

And you're a careful writer, right? Let's check in with the usage experts.

According to my pal Garner in his Modern American Usage, in correct usage comprise means "the whole comprises the part," while compose means "the whole is composed of the parts." He also states that is comprised of is becoming "ubiquitous" (stage 4 in the Language-Change Index) but is still "considered poor usage" (175).

And what of Fowler, whom I reviewed recently? He doesn't mention it, though Burchfield explains in his edition that this was an oversight in the final version and quotes an early tract with Fowler's opinion (167-168). Both Fowler and Burchfield come down on the side of comprise not being the same as compose, and the latter offers plenty of examples, though he admits this may be a losing battle they're fighting.

Many other experts side with more precise wording, including The Associated Press Stylebook, The Gregg Reference Manual, Words into Type, 21st Century Grammar Handbook, and Barbara Wallraff in Word Court.

It seems, then, the correct answer is, as it so often is in language, it depends. You can certainly get away with any of the sentences we started with and not be wholly condemnable:

  • Three chapters and a glossary comprise the entirety of the book.
  • Three chapters and a glossary compose the book.
  • The book was comprised of three chapters and a glossary.
  • The book was composed of three chapters and a glossary.
  • The book comprises three chapters and a glossary.

However, when you have to be understood, when first impressions truly count (and don't they always in writing?), don't use comprise to mean compose and don't use is comprised of. Remember: the whole comprises the parts, and the parts compose the whole:

  • Three chapters and a glossary comprise the entirety of the book.
  • Three chapters and a glossary compose the book.
  • The book was comprised of three chapters and a glossary.
  • The book was composed of three chapters and a glossary.
  • The book comprises three chapters and a glossary.

What do you think? Would you use comprise to mean compose in formal writing? Would you dare to put is comprised of in your next book or business report? Let us know in the comments section!

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Erin Brenner is the founder of Right Touch Editing, a customizable editing service. She has been an editing professional for over 15 years and is sought after for her expertise in language mechanics. She works on a variety of media in all levels of editing. In addition, she provides bite-sized lessons to improve your writing on her blog The Writing Resource and is the editor of Copyediting.com, which offers advice and training for those who edit copy. Follow her on Twitter at @ebrenner or on Facebook. Click here to read more articles by Erin Brenner.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday February 16th 2010, 8:48 AM
Comment by: Fusun A. (Brossard Canada)
Comprise versus Compose

To comprise means "to contain" or "include"
To compose means "to be made up of"

A good way to avoid mix-up is to use only the active construction (not passive), and use "make up" and "constitute" instead of comprise when you really mean "compose".

Incorrect usage:
The guest house composes twelve rooms.

Correct usage:
The guest house comprises twelve rooms.

However, one can also state the idea like this:
The guest house is compsed of twelve rooms.

Cheers !
Füsun A
Tuesday February 16th 2010, 8:53 AM
Comment by: Deborah B. (Tybee Island, GA)
Oops. Wouldn't the last sentence be The book comprises three chapters and a glossary?
Tuesday February 16th 2010, 9:11 AM
Comment by: Kenneth P.
If you are not writing for the English teacher, it doesn't seem to be a big deal. Most people look at context and have no problem understanding the meaning. My opinion may not carry much weight, tho. My English teachers got their knickers in a twist every now and then, but usually got them un-twisted when they went back and analyzed the usage in context.
Tuesday February 16th 2010, 9:15 AM
Comment by: Don H. (Antioch, CA)Top 10 Commenter
(Good catch, Deborah B.!)

"Three chapters and a glossary compose the book," just seems awkward.

The author composed the book. (Though I would edit that sentence, as well.)
Tuesday February 16th 2010, 9:25 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Deborah and Don: yes, that should be "three chapters and a glossary." Even editors need an editor to check their work! Thanks for noticing.

[Fixed! We were just keep y'all on your toes. :-> —Ed.]
Tuesday February 16th 2010, 9:38 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I think this is a good case for 'made up of' as in: The book was made up of three chapters and a glossery.

Tuesday February 16th 2010, 12:45 PM
Comment by: Karen M.
I bypass the whole argument by writing such sentences without using either word. That's the wonderful thing about English: there's always a different words you can use.
Tuesday February 16th 2010, 3:26 PM
Comment by: James E. (Tucson, AZ)
In engineering we often use "comprise" to show the heirarchy of construction. For example, "the new system comprises twelve digital signal processor boards and six signal processor boards." Another way to say it is that the system comprises the sub-systems.

Of course, the sub-systems compose the system. We often say that the sub-systems "make-up" the system, but then we get into the whole hyphenation issue!
Sunday February 21st 2010, 11:10 AM
Comment by: Alok S. (Toronto Canada)
This is an important part of grammar. I stand on the "compose side" because of no reason. They both can be used differently in a sentence to give the same meaning.
Sunday February 21st 2010, 8:04 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter

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