Pet peeves are funny. They start as barely-on-the-radar blips of something that seems a little off. Then a few more blips appear. And a few more. And pretty soon, the radar is lit up like the proverbial Christmas tree, and you’re pulling out your hair, screaming, “Enough already!”
The word “comprise” has become my newest pet peeve. Well, not the word itself – just the misuse of the word. I’ve been seeing it misused everywhere lately, in newspapers, books, websites, signs, you name it. Even some of my favorite authors have slipped, which means some of my favorite editors have, too.
Fair warning: the next person who writes “is comprised of” is going to find their online avatar replaced by the image of a smoking hole.
Yeah, I sound tough. But my computer-hacking skillz are infantile, so it’s an idle threat, at best. So, failing the more visually satisfying hacked-avatar plan, I figured I would just write about the difference between “comprised” and “composed” today.
They are NOT synonyms. Period.
For some reason, everyone suddenly seems to think “is comprised of” sounds way more sophisticated than “is composed of.” It’s nice that you want to go with sophistication, but misusing the word isn’t exactly accomplishing that for you.
What’s the difference?
My favorite way to think about the two words is this:
Composed = “is made up of.” You say, “The sum is composed of its parts.”
Comprises = “encompasses” or “contains.” You never, ever use it in the phrase “is comprised of” because you would never say “is encompassed of.” Never. Instead, you simply say, “The sum comprises its parts.”
Let’s try an example. You can say, “The team is composed of 56 players,” or “The material is composed of iron, basalt, and pudding.”
Now let’s say you’re really determined to use the word “comprise.” Try using the word “encompass” or “contain” first and see if that works: “The material is encompassed of iron, basalt, and pudding.” Nope. That doesn’t work at all. It also doesn’t work to say, “The team is contained of 56 players.”
So if you want to use “comprise,” you have to ditch the “is…of” construction and just use “comprises” all by itself. In other words, you’d say, “The material comprises iron, basalt, and pudding” and “The team comprises 56 players.” Bingo! That works.
Likewise, with “comprise” you can’t reverse the sentence’s order and say “Iron, basalt, and pudding comprise the material,” because the individual items don’t encompass or contain the material. It’s the other way around: the material contains the individual items. With comprise, the whole always comes first, because the whole can contain the parts, but the parts can’t contain the whole.
With compose, you CAN reverse the order, saying, “Iron, basalt, and pudding compose the material,” because it means, “Iron, basalt, and pudding make up the material.”
There are a host of longer explanations and examples in various grammar books and websites, but the simplest rule is just to remember that you never say “is comprised of.” If you’re trying to use the “is…of” construction, you HAVE to use “compose.”
- “Is composed of” – great!
- “Comprises” – great!
- “Is comprised of” – smoking hole avatar
If you remember this one rule, you’ll be golden. If you don’t, I have a teenage computer-savvy son who can hijack your avatar, and I’m not afraid to use him.
I'm embarrassed to admit I've been guilty of this, but now that I know, I will never say "is comprised of" again. Thanks for the heads up! My avatar thanks you too!
Kelley J. P. Lindberg says
I would feel terrible if I had to smoke your gorgeous avatar. So thanks for preserving it!