Language Matters - June 1, 2018 - 4 min

Controversial Usage Rules: the Case of Comprise

Careful writing involves consideration of the rules of grammar, style and lexical usage, some of which are outmoded (we scoff at the outdated proscription against using contact as a verb) while others are still followed faithfully (we avoid mistaking effect for affect). Certain rules are difficult to gauge, however, as we are not sure whether to follow or ignore them. One such tricky matter is how to correctly use the verb comprise, a popular choice when discussing parts of a whole. Do the parts comprise the whole, does the whole comprise the parts, or are both constructions correct? Can you use the passive form comprised of? This article will examine the traditional rule as well as the history of usage that challenges it.

The Traditional Rule Against Comprised of

The traditional rule, apparently born in the 20th century, states that comprise means “to be made up of” as in The whole comprises the parts (e.g. The collection comprises thirty oil paintings). This is indeed the original sense of the verb, borrowed in the 15th century from Old French compris, the past participle of comprendre meaning “to include or consist of”. According to this rule, it is wrong to use comprise to mean “to make up”, the inverse of the original sense, as in The parts comprise the whole (e.g. Thirty oil paintings comprise the collection). By extension, the construction comprised of meaning “made up of” as in The whole is comprised of the parts (e.g. The collection is comprised of thirty oil paintings), is considered incorrect English because it refers to the inverse of the original sense and is thus a contradiction of it: “If the whole comprises the parts,” grammarians say, “then the whole cannot be comprised of the parts”. This rule against the second, inverse sense of comprise and its form comprised of is advocated in The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage (5th ed.), The Chicago Manual of Style (17th ed.), The Elements of Style, Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.) and many other usage authorities. The construction comprised of is usually the issue of focus, since it’s the more common “error” and is easier to spot. The correction often given is composed of.

Accepted: This book comprises seven chapters.
Criticized but in use: This book is comprised of seven chapters.
Criticized but in use: Seven chapters comprise this book.

200+ Years of Rule-Breaking

Challenging the traditional rule is the fact that the second, derided sense of comprise has been used in English since the late 18th century:

The wheels and pinions comprizing [sic] the wheel-work.

Lectures on natural and experimental philosophy, published in 1799 in London, England

The second sense of comprise is found in abundance in such leading newspapers as the Guardian (UK), the Globe and Mail (Canada) and the Washington Post (US) and in the work of such celebrated authors as Charles Dickens, Christopher Hitchens, Bertrand Russell, Noam Chomsky and David Foster Wallace (despite the fact that he disparaged it in an English course he taught1).

Acceptance of this rule breaking seems to be increasing. Indeed, the second sense of comprise has made its way into dictionaries, including the Oxford Dictionary of English, Collins English Dictionary (online) and Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. Resistance to the second sense among the American Heritage’s Usage Panel of 200 prominent writers, scholars and other English-language experts has fallen from 53% in the 1960s to 32% by 2011. Evidence abounds that both senses of comprise have established places for themselves in the lexicon of Standard English.

However, the practice of using the preposition of after the original sense of comprise is still considered incorrect by dictionaries including the Oxford Dictionary of English and Collins English Dictionary:

This book comprises of seven chapters.

A Writer’s Choice

With such widespread usage, is it reasonable to view the second sense of comprise as poor usage?

This question perhaps reached its peak in 2015 when a Wikipedia editor known as Giraffedata made the news for seeking to remove all instances of the construction comprised of from Wikipedia, a task for which he has made 47,000 edits and counting.2 Many people were angered, astounded or amused by this, which indicates that the traditional distinction between comprise and compose is not as widely accepted as, say, the distinction between you’re and your, which all professional writers maintain.

Misuses, when present in the language for enough time, often become perfectly acceptable English. But the issue with comprise is not just about notions of newness or correctness; it is also about clarity. Some, like Giraffedata and linguist Geoffrey Pullum, wish the second sense of comprise could be weeded out of the English language in order to maintain a valuable distinction between comprise and compose.3 The inverse sense of comprise casts the verb as an auto-antonym, a word that means at once one thing (whole–part, the opposite of compose) and its very opposite (part–whole, a synonym of compose). Auto-antonymy breeds ambiguity. In the following sentence, it is difficult to know which sense of comprise Jane Austen is using:

Miss Sally Fagg has a pretty figure, and that comprises all the good looks of the family.

a letter from Jane Austen to her sister Cassandra, 1813

If the original sense of comprise is intended here, then Sally’s figure can be interpreted as the product of all the good looks of her ancestors. But if the inverse sense of comprise is intended here, then the message becomes much less charitable: Sally’s figure is the only thing that is good-looking about her family.

Consider another ambiguous example:

Proteins comprise chains of polypeptides.

For someone unfamiliar with biochemistry, it may be unclear whether proteins are made up of polypeptide chains or polypeptide chains are made up of proteins. This potential for ambiguity motivates some writers to avoid comprise altogether.

After reading about the main considerations surrounding the comprise controversy, you can now make an informed decision on how you wish to use (or avoid) this verb.

Other Verbs Denoting Inclusion

There are many other verbs to choose from to describe parts of a whole, such as include, comprehend, contain, consist of, be composed of and be made up of (where the whole takes the subject position and the parts take the object position) and constitute, compose, form, be included in, be contained in and make up (where the parts take the subject position and the whole takes the object position).

Notice how many of these verbs, along with comprise, begin with con- or com-. This is because they share the Latin prefix com- meaning “together, with” which changes its form to con- before certain consonants.

  1. Wallace, David Foster. The David Foster Wallace Reader. New York, Little, Brown and Company, 2014, p. cixvii. 

  2. Lusher, Adam. "Wikipedia Editor Has Made Some 47,000 Corrections to Online Database", The Independent, February 4, 2015. 

  3. Pullum, Geoffrey. "Comprise Yourself", The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 11, 2015. 

This article was concocted by
the linguists at Antidote
No results