“Comprised of” Revisited

By Maeve Maddox

More than one reader has chided me for writing “comprised of” in a recent post. Here’s the culprit:

In the ancient Roman army, a centurion was the officer in charge of a century, a unit originally comprised of 100 men.

Anyone who has ever read a popular language blog has seen this dictum stated as an adamantine rule: One must never use the phrase comprised of.

I’ve certainly read many articles that explain in great detail why “comprised of” is not only merely wrong, but really, most sincerely wrong. I was on the verge of writing to Daniel to ask him to change comprised to composed, but then I read my sentence again and had to admit that I don’t see anything wrong with it.

Plenty of other writers reach for “comprised of” without remembering that it’s a no-no. The usage is found in edited articles published in The American Scholar, The Atlantic, The Christian Science Monitor, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The Washington Post.

This confession from Francine Prose, a contributing editor to the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus and author of a string of books published by the world’s most prestigious publishing houses, illustrates the writer’s dilemma:

It has been pointed out to me, more often than I care to admit, that you can say: The book comprises five sections. But you should not say: The book is comprised of five sections. In the second example, use compose instead: The book is composed of five sections. I have lost hope of ever getting it straight, so for now I find synonyms, and wait for so many others to make the same mistake that—as so often happens— grammarians simply give up, and decide that both usages are correct.

I mistrust a rule of usage that is not only supremely forgettable but also targets a phrase that writers of formal English have been using for centuries. Even respected language commentators who officially uphold the notion that “comprised of” must not be used with the meaning of “consists of” recognize the hopelessness of remembering this particular “rule”:

And no one will mind if you avoid “comprise.” Just say, “made up of.” Mignon Fogarty, Grammar Girl.

But there’s so much confusion surrounding the usage of [comprise] that it may be better to avoid it altogether. Paul Brians, Common Errors in English Usage.

The editors at Oxford Dictionaries Online state that “comprised of” is “more or less synonymous” with “consists of” and that this usage is “part of standard English.”

The Oxford English Dictionary—without any indication that the usage is nonstandard—includes this definition for the “passive form” of comprise: “To be composed of, to consist of.” The earliest OED citation for this use is dated 1874. Several linguistic discussions of the topic reference earlier uses dating from 1704.

Even the editors at Merriam-Webster, after defending the use of “comprised of” as acceptable usage, capitulate to the bogus rule:

You should be aware, however, that if you use [“comprised of”] you may be subject to criticism for doing so, and you may want to choose a safer synonym such as compose or make up.

Geoff Nunberg calls the “comprised of” proscription “a pedant’s veto”:

It doesn’t matter if you consider a word to be correct English. If some sticklers insist that it’s an error, the dictionaries and style manuals are going to counsel you to steer clear of it to avoid bringing down their wrath. That can be the prudent course, especially in an age when email and Web comment threads make things easy for what William Safire used to call the “gotcha gang.”

All of us have our linguistic pet peeves, usage that produces “blackboard moments” of discomfort. They may not be defensible, but that doesn’t make them any less annoying to us.

In deference to readers who cringe when they hear or see the phrase “comprised of,” I won’t use it in future DWT articles. But I will permit my centurion sentence to stand.

Related post:
Usage That Provokes “Blackboard Moments”

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15 Responses to ““Comprised of” Revisited”

  • Lauren @ Pure Text

    I recently concluded that this distinction is futile too. The dictionary says they’re synonymous, it makes perfect sense in a sentence, and it’s one less thing for me to worry about when editing. I’ve got bigger fish to fry. 😉

  • Ellen

    I’m an avoider because I’d like to use “comprised of,” but have understood it’s wrong.

    It’s “wrongness” does make sense if this is right:

    comprise = transitive verb

    We don’t use a preposition after a transitive verb.

    Isn’t the idea of “of” already included in the meaning of “comprise”?

    And it if is and we wrote “comprised of,” wouldn’t that be like writing the following (double “of” intended):

    The newspaper consists of of seven sections.

    This is why “comprised of” seems legitimately wrong to me.

    More thoughts?

    Thanks!

  • Ellen

    Hello.

    I’m an avoider because I want to use “comprised of” but have believed it’s wrong.

    Isn’t the concept of “of” already inherent in the meaning of “comprise”?

    If this is true:
    comprise = transitive verb

    Then writing “comprised of” would be like writing:

    consists of of (double “of” intended)

    Thoughts?

  • Precise Edit

    Similar to “data is” versus “data are,” “bring” versus “take,” and “nauseous” versus “nauseated,” correct use of “comprises” and “is composed of” is an issue of habit. The correct expressions may sound odd to some people because they are not in the habit of using them and do not regularly interact with other people who use them. If you use the wrong expression or word, I am willing to guess, few people will notice and fewer will care. As with most usage questions, however, the degree to which a writer (or speaker) adheres to correct usage should depend on the context in which he is writing (or speaking). Formal contexts require formal language use, meaning correct grammar and punctuation and accurate word usage.

    “Comprise” is similar to “join multiple units into a single unit,” e.g., “A house comprises various rooms.” “Comprise” indicates that one thing has multiple parts.

    “Compose” is similar to “create” and “combine with other units to make a single unit,” e.g., “Various rooms compose a house.” “Compose” indicates that multiple things can interact to make one new thing.

  • Jim Hertsch

    For me, it’s simple: “of’ is part of comprise’s definition, to add it is redundant. We are taking a perfectly good verb and turning it into a verb phrase:

    The class comprises 20 students.
    The class is comprised of 20 students.

  • Rich Wheeler

    Thought-provoking article, Maeve! You put a lot of effort into it.

    Using ‘comprising’ in place of ‘comprised of’ turns a boring, passive clause into an active one and agrees with the definition of ‘comprise.’

    “a century, comprising, originally, 100 men.”

    Score: One superfluous word eliminated, passive turned to active

    ‘Comprising’ serves a purpose only if the writer wishes to draw attention to the process of forming a unit. Otherwise, even ‘comprising’ adds wordiness.

    “a century, a unit of, originally, 100 men.”

    Score: Two superfluous words eliminated, structure simplified

    Regarding ‘compose’: The fact that people use ‘compose’ in passive voice should remind us that external agents such as a writers or recruiters do any composing. Rooms might comprise, or combine to form, a living space; but at least to my ear, rooms do not interact or compose. Even if we accepted such unnatural usage, rooms would not form a house without the addition of external walls and a roof. A recruiter might compose a century of 100 men, but 100 men would not compose a unit.

  • S Churchill PhD

    The Cambridge Dictionary website provides clarification when choosing between ‘consist’, ‘comprise’ and ‘compose’: ‘Consist, comprise and compose are all verbs used to describe what something is ‘made of’. We don’t use them in continuous forms.’ These terms above are also ranked in progressive degree of formality and correct usage of active or passive voice.

    See: http://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/grammar/british-grammar/consist-comprise-or-compose

  • Brendan

    I have always preferred to avoid “comprised of”. Recently I saw some articles about this guy: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/news/wikipedia-editor-has-made-some-47000-corrections-to-online-database-10024355.html and I recommend that we make his life a bit easier by not using “comprised of”.

  • Phil Radler

    I find it amusing that the “comprised of” article is adjacent to the one on etymons. If memory serves, “comprise” evolved from a French word meaning “embrace” or “include.” According to Bill Walsh (in “Lapsing Into a Comma”), “To comprise means ‘to contain or to embrace’.” And further, according to Walsh: “Nothing is ever ‘comprised of’ something.” It isn’t that hard to get it right.

  • Anne-Marie

    Oh. My. Goodness. I am going to use “comprised of” more often now.

  • Phil Radler

    [In response to Anne-Marie] The Chicago Manual of Style also speaks to this issue: “The phrase ‘comprised of,’ though increasingly common, is poor usage.” Yet you rejoice in a substandard choice. Oh, well; Chicago also observes that “[W]hile common usage can excuse many slipshod expressions, the standards of good usage make demands on writers and editors.” Perhaps you find those demands too onerous, and wish to distance yourself from membership in those two august groups.

  • Maeve

    Phil,
    Your remark to Anne-Marie has sparked an idea for a post. Thank you.

    Anne-Marie,
    Don’t be bullied. Even the editors at Chicago are known to revise their recommendations from edition to edition, “to reflect the latest thinking among writers, editors, and publishers.”

  • Phil Radler

    Anne-Marie and Maeve: My apologies; I never want to bully anyone, but I will happily engage when challenged. And it seems to me that the message I responded to had a bit of “snark” in it to begin with . . .

    On a more important note: When precision matters, it REALLY matters. I’ve seen proposals fail because of sloppy language and inaccurate math, and I’ve seen candidates for writing/editing positions rejected because of a single mistake in their résumés (e.g., failing to spell résumé correctly). Why hire candidates who are casual about language or who don’t understand the subtleties of the en dash? I can readily find applicants who honor linguistic conventions that have been accumulating for centuries. I agree with Maeve that the rules change over time, but that doesn’t bestow a blanket authorization to speak and write as we please; failure to learn and adhere to those pesky “standards of good usage” can be woefully expensive.

  • Maeve

    Phil,
    Nicely put. And I agree with everything you say in your second comment. I’ll save further remarks for the promised post.

  • Precise Edit

    Why is it that people, in my experience, are more critical of incorrect mathematical calculations than of incorrect language use? Is it because, perhaps, many people recognize their own discomfort with standard language, or could it be, on the other hand, that most people who do understand the principles of language use are generally too civil to point out the mistakes of others, in recognition of the importance of language to creating and maintaining society, by which I imply that people who value language typically value relationships? Then again, self-appointed members of the “grammar police” seem not to care about their relationships, although in defense of my argument, many members of said group demonstrate that they, too, have only passing familiarity with the principles of standard or accepted language use.

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