I have a confession to make. I’ve been doing it wrong all these years.
Throughout my long editing career, I have corrected writers who erroneously use the word comprise, as in “The federal government is comprised of the executive, the legislative, and the judicial branches.” Comprise means “to include, to be made up of, to constitute,” so what I’ve always considered appropriate here is consists: “The federal government consists of the executive, the legislative, and the judicial branches.”
“Is comprised of” — wrong. “Consists of” — right.
So far, so good.
But though I usually follow the advice of various writing and editing guides that recommend, because of the perils of comprise, avoiding the use of the word altogether, I occasionally resort to it in my own writing — not in the erroneous usage shown above, but on its own. However, as I discovered just today while working on a post about problem words, even then, I’ve been using it wrong all along.
For some reason, somewhere along the line, I misread the dictum that when it comes to comprise, the whole comprises the parts. (“The federal government comprises the executive, the legislative, and the judicial branches.”) Instead, I’ve always constructed the sentence the wrong way. (“The executive, the legislative, and the judicial branches comprise the federal government.”) See for yourself. Search for comprise on this site. I’ll wait.
I (along with other DailyWritingTips.com contributors) have routinely gotten it backward. How could I misunderstand that rule in all the grammar guides I’ve read?
I readily admit that I have not yet mastered the English language. While editing and while writing alike, I have to look things up all the time — but I thought I had this one down. Now, you can be sure, I really do have it down (though I expect that I’ll start shaking uncontrollably every time I see . . . that word . . . and from here on out, because of this painful revelation, I’ll probably recast sentences with . . . that word . . . every time I see it—and, it should go without saying, refrain from using it myself.
So, what’s the point of this post? For one thing, I want to acknowledge my error. On this site, I both prescribe and describe many rules about English usage and grammar, and I almost invariably stand by my statements when a visitor, in a comment, challenges me (or when I admit that in a given case, perhaps we’re both right). But when I’m wrong, I have to say so.
But there’s more to this issue: Merriam-Webster’s Online points out in a usage note that . . . that word . . . is increasingly used incorrectly (both in the reversal of “the whole . . . the parts” and in the phrasing “is . . . of”), but it advises readers against following that trend because “you may be subject to criticism for doing so.” (Oh, so William Styron can get away with it, but I can’t?)
My main point is this: The English language is in flux. It always has been (at least since its inception), and it always will be (at least until its extinction). Just as languages evolve from one species to another — Anglo-Saxon becomes Middle English becomes Modern English — they are always, within themselves, in turmoil, and we suffer along with them.
Merriam-Webster’s print and online dictionaries, in general, have a don’t-sweat-it approach when it comes to iffy usage, but my philosophy has always been to accept the dynamism of language without surrendering to usage that is both ephemeral and erroneous or that may someday be accepted but is still considered substandard in formal writing. Standards in language are like those in law: We have to be able to get along, and just as if each of us does whatever we want to in life, community shall cease, disregarding writing rules — as they stand at the time — will render us unable to communicate.
So, when it comes to — all right, I’ll say it — comprise, the whole comprises the parts, not the other way around. Comprise is a one-way street.