Dr.V.K. Kanniappan

(17.10.1944 / Madurai, Tamil Nadu, India)

Correct Usage Of The Word ‘Comprise’


It is said the word, ‘comprise’ is misused more often.
The standard view is that ‘comprise’ is used correctly
if the verb precedes with a group noun;
- one that refers to a set or collection –
and the verb is followed by a complete listing of the components of the set.

If it is put simply, the whole comprises its parts.
‘Whole’ is a group noun, ‘parts’ represents components of the set!

Some examples of correct usage:
1. A pack comprises 52 cards.
2. The evaluation will comprise a process study and an economic study.
3. Our fun-filled shows comprise comedy and music.

The experts say
it is wrong to use it the other way,
to list the parts first and then the whole.

Some examples of wrong usage:
1. Governors, mayors and tribal leaders comprise the task force.
2. Fourteen categories comprise the field of competition.
3. Scissors, thread and sewing cards comprise the kit.

The above sentences have to be written correctly as follows:
1. The task force comprises of governors, mayors and tribal leaders.
2. The field of competition comprises of fourteen categories.
3. The kit comprises of scissors, thread and sewing cards.

In 1579, Thomas North translated a sentence in Plutarch’s Lives as “There were but one and thirty cities comprised in the league.”

In the second edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage in 1965, Sir Ernest Gowers objected strongly to it:

This lamentably common use of the word comprise, as a synonym of compose or constitute is a wanton and indefensible weakening of our vocabulary.

If you use comprise in its accepted active role, what follows must be a complete list of the parts that make up the whole.

If it doesn't, you should use a word such as include, since that signals that the list is of examples, not of the whole set.

The other disputed form is the passive construction is comprised of. Bill Bryson wrote in his Dictionary of Troublesome Words of 1984, “If you remember nothing else from this book, remember at least that ‘comprised of’ is always wrong.”

Bryan Garner: I have to confess to disliking it with an almost visceral emotion, in part because I don’t like the passive -I also object, though less violently, to is composed of - but mainly because I was taught decades ago that it was utterly wrong.

The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style notes that in 1996 63% of its advisory panel approved of is comprised of against only 47% in 1965.

It’s easy to find examples in print; these are all from newspapers of October 2013:

The new exhibition at the Wallace Collection is comprised of nothing but drawings of naked men (Daily Telegraph) .

The Kenya Lake System is comprised of three inter-linked shallow lakes (The Australian) .

Home prices changes for the national index, which is comprised of 20 cities, peaked in April (Chicago Tribune) .

This passive construction has been in use for nearly two centuries. The earliest I've so far found is in The Jamaica Planter’s Guide of 1823 by Thomas Roughley: “The great gang is comprised of the most powerful field-negroes.” The complaints against it may be thought illogical, because the passive construction puts the whole before its parts in the way that’s approved for the active form.

Dr.V.K.Kanniappan: Can we write the sentence as follows?

“The great gang is comprised of the most powerful field-negroes.”
as “The great gang comprised the most powerful field-negroes.”

Submitted: Tuesday, November 12, 2013
Edited: Wednesday, November 13, 2013

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Ref: World wide words,09.November,2013

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