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.
Usage That Provokes “Blackboard Moments”