I’ve been posting things that people get wrong a lot lately, and here’s another one, that someone (the folks at This Day in History) almost got right! They seem to know the way most people get this wrong, and they avoid that: NEVER use “is comprised of”! That’s a pretentiousism. (You may say “is composed of” when appropriate. See the last rule below.)
The winning teams from those regions comprise the Final Four, who meet in that year’s host city to decide the championship.
But they still got it backwards. Here are the rules:
Use comprise when you start with the whole thing and then mention its parts. It means “is made up of.”
Use compose when you start with the parts (winning teams) and then say what they make (The Final Four). You may use “is composed of” if you have a need to put the whole thing first and the parts second and you don’t want to use comprise. So, “The ‘Final Four’ is composed of the winning teams from each region” is correct.
Subscribe to this blog's RSS feed
Comprising 60,000 unique aluminum parts stacked into 31 layers, this incredibly complicated structure was inspired by scientific research into the health of honeybees and the role they play as pollinators.
Before you read the bullets, see if you can identify the two tricky words, and which one is used correctly.
Done? Okay, there they are.
- Correct: comprise. I’ve mentioned this word often enough that if you’re a regular reader, you already know how to use this word. The pattern is the whole comprises its parts. And you never say “is comprised of.”
- Incorrect: unique. Especially in a technical article, “unique” should mean “one of a kind,” not “unusual” or “interesting.” Judging from the sentence, 60,000 is hardly one of a kind, and judging from the picture, I see a lot of duplication, even if they aren’t all 60,000 of them the same. Still “interesting” does apply, I think.
First, in case you haven’t already read it on these pages, the rule is “Never say ‘is comprised of.’” That’s a big fat pretentiousism. Comprise means, in effect, “is composed of.” Saying “is composed of of” is nonsense.
Second, I’ve mentioned before that cartoonists tend to be pretty good at English, and I like to use them as good examples. Here’s an example of a cartoonist getting it right:
Each year’s Eisner judging panel comprises completely different people, and I had no reason to hope that this year’s panel would feel the same about my work as last year’s did.
See that? His use of “comprise” is absolutely correct. By the way, here’s another grammatical subtlety: the last phrase (…as last year’s did) has a possessive adjective but no noun! Last year’s what did? That’s not a goof, it’s an ellipsis. He left out “panel” because you can tell from the parallel structure that he’s talking about another panel. High-quality adult-level writing.
Third, I have an ulterior motive for mentioning this example. I stumbled onto a comic that I recommend to you all. It’s called The Last Mechanical Monster, by Brian Fies. It continues the story of a really old Superman animated short—it’s about what happens after the bad guy gets out of jail, aged 99. Don’t follow the link unless you have some time to read; it’s a real page-turner. The quote, by the way, is toward the bottom of page 160 in the comments.
Correct use of “comprise” is one of my hobby-horses; I recently found a couple examples of it being used correctly, so I decided it’s time to have a repeat lesson.
Shall I tell you why people get “comprise” wrong? Because they want to sound educated. In other words, they’re being pretentious. It’s the same thing that leads people to say “prior” when they mean “before,” and Latinize the plural of “process” into “processese.” Artificial fancy usages are pretentiousisms. “Is composed of” sounds so mundane, they have to class it up with a fancier word. Trouble is, they get it wrong.
“Comprise” means “is composed of,” which is a passive construction. You want to avoid using the passive when you can, so “comprise” is a handy alternative.
A hybrid eclipse comprises a total solar eclipse and an ‘annular eclipse’, depending on an observer’s viewing location on Earth.
Four of the five remaining Santa Cruz cypress habitats are now parklands or ecological reserves. The population comprises a healthy 33,000 trees or more, so the fws [Fish and Wildlife Service] has proposed reclassifying the species as merely “threatened.”
You can find the first quote at http://www.spaceref.com/news/viewpr.html?pid=41862 and the second quote at http://www.world-science.net.
Rule of thumb: Start with the single, big thing, then comprise, then more than one smaller thing. So, Hybrid eclipse comprises total and annular. Now you do the second one for practice. Be clear, not pretentious.
A pretentiousism is when you use a fancier word than you need, particularly when you use that fancy word incorrectly. One of my favorite such words to hate consists of the compose/comprise dichotomy.
I’m reading A Universe from Nothing by Lawrence M. Krauss. It’s a book on cosmology written to literate (read interested in cosmology) laypeople. So far the book has been a nice review of a lot of material about cosmology that I’ve already read, and it pulls some things together for me. On page 113 I ran into a nice correct use of “comprise,” and I decided to share it with you. Remember, “comprise” goes between the whole and its parts, in that order. It’s a rather long sentence; bear with me until you get near the end.
It is worth repeating the implications of this remarkable agreement more forcefully: Only in the first seconds of a hot Big Bang with an initial abundance of protons and neutrons that would result in something very close to the observed density matter in visible galaxies today, and a density of radiation that would leave a remnant that would correspond precisely to the observed intensity of the cosmic microwave background radiation today, would nuclear reactions occur that could produce precisely the abundance of light elements, hydrogen and deuterium, helium, and lithium, that we infer to have comprised the basic building blocks of the stars that now fill the night sky.
The part that I’m interested in is “…the abundance…that we infer to have comprised the building basic building blocks…” The abundance (the whole thing) comprises the blocks (plural, parts). A complicated sentence, but he got it right.
However, the book is good for more than a good example. On page 114 I found this poor misshapen gem:
When 60 percent of the visible matter in the universe is comprised of helium, there will be no necessity for production of primordial helium in a hot Big Bang in order to produce agreement with observation.
The universe will be 60% composed of helium, or if you prefer, the universe will be made up of 60% helium. (Best is to avoid the whole issue: the universe is 60% helium).
Dr. Krauss is hardly someone I’d accuse of being pretentious, but it’s fun to catch the smart guys once in a while, too.
To be fair, Dr. Krauss uses “comprise” correctly at least twice more, in consecutive sentences, no less. Repetition is the mother of learning, so I’ll quote them here so you can practice seeing how the word is used correctly.
More recently, however, universe has come to have a simpler, arguably more sensible meaning. It is now traditional to think of “our” universe as comprising simply the totality of all that we can now see and all that we could ever see. Physically, therefore, our universe comprises everything that either once could have had an impact upon us or that ever will.
I leave it as an exercise for you, dear reader, to work out that these usages are correct.