A Word, Please: Dictionaries offer some leeway on use of 'comprise'

Recently I forgot how to use "comprise."

It was odd. One day I'm correcting writers' use of this word, and the next day I'm using it in the same way that I've been treating as an error for years. Repeatedly.

No reason. No explanation. It was as if whatever I thought I knew about "comprise" had just fallen out of my head.

Brain damage concerns aside, this may have been a good thing. It forced me to re-research "comprise" and its cousin, "compose." And I'm learning that maybe I didn't understand them as well as I thought I did.

My first introduction to the difference between "compose" and "comprise" came from the AP Stylebook: "'Compose' means to create or put together," AP says. "'Comprise' means to contain, to include all or embrace."

Here's how people in the editing profession usually sum this up: The whole comprises the parts, but the parts compose the whole. So you'd say a quiche comprises many ingredients, or many ingredients compose a quiche.

If that second example sounds a little unnatural it's because we often use "compose" in the passive: A quiche is composed of many ingredients. But that's just a flipped around way of saying the same thing. And both the active "Many ingredients compose a quiche" and the passive "A quiche is composed of many ingredients" stay true to the letter of the style guide's rule.

There's more. According to style guides, comprise "is best used only in the active voice." In other words, using the word "of" after "comprise" is frowned upon. That's the rule I've stuck to for years: Anytime I see "comprised of," I fix it. Nine out of 10 times, the writer meant "composed of" anyway. So I change sentences like "The book is comprised of 20 chapters" to "The book is composed of 20 chapters."

That was the easy part: I just made sure that "comprise" was never paired up with "of." But the harder part is remembering that, according to the style guides, one thing comprises many and not the other way around. And that's the style guideline that I somehow forgot in the last year or so when I started penning sentences like the following, which appeared in a recent column: "Of the eight grammar 'facts' that comprised the list, all eight were wrong."

According to all my style training, that's wrong. The list would comprise the facts. Not the other way around. I was using "comprise" to mean "make up" (which, of course, is a job for "compose"). So in my book, that was wrong.

But then I started opening some other books. That's when I realized that I had been taking my style guide training a little too seriously.

Here's Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary: "comprise. 1. to be made up of (something): to include or consist of (something). 2. to make up or form (something)."

Other dictionaries agree. Here's Webster's New World College Dictionary: "comprise. 1. to include; contain; 2. to consist of; be composed of: a nation comprising thirteen states 3. to make up; form; constitute: in this sense still regarded by a few as a loose usage: a nation comprised of thirteen states."

In other words, my wrong use of "comprise" wasn't as wrong as I thought.

From now on, I'll follow Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage: "Our advice to you is to realize that the disputed sense is established and standard, but nevertheless liable to criticism. If such criticism concerns you, you can probably avoid 'comprise' by using 'compose,' 'constitute' or 'make up.'"

JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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