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Q From John Gould: I teach a grammar course at Bennington College, and one of my hobby-horses is comprise, which is misused more often than used correctly. Would you weigh in on this issue?

A I shall, with some trepidation, because its correct application has become a shibboleth of good writing. Recently, arbiters have become more tolerant of it, which may sadden some readers.

The first issue is word order. The standard view is that comprise is used correctly if the subject of the verb is a group noun (one that refers to a set or collection), and the object is a complete listing of the components of the set. Put simply, the whole comprises its parts. That sounds terribly abstract and some examples may help:

• A pack comprises 52 cards.
• The evaluation will comprise a process study and an economic study.
• Our fun-filled shows comprise comedy and music.

The experts say it’s wrong to use it the other way round, to list the parts first as the subject and the whole afterwards as the object, as in

• Governors, mayors and tribal leaders comprise the task force.
• Fourteen categories comprise the field of competition.
• Scissors, thread and needles comprise the sewing kit.

These rules seem to have arisen only during the twentieth century. Before then, grammarians made no mention of this second version as wrong. The rise in condemnation parallels its rise in use, since until the twentieth century it was more frequent in scientific and technical prose. In the second edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage in 1965, Sir Ernest Gowers objected strongly to it:

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

However, disquiet over it has been dying back. Thirty years later, in 1996, R W Burchfield commented in the third edition of Fowler: “It cannot be denied that the sheer frequency of this construction seems likely to take it out of the disputed area before long.” Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage cautiously accepts it because it is flourishing. Popular usage is returning this item of English to the acceptable state it was in before writers such as H W Fowler began to decry it a century ago.

By the way, 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 the list is of examples, not of the whole set.

The other disputed form is the construction comprised of. Style writers take an even dimmer view of this than of the other one. 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 concurred in his Modern American Usage of 2003, “This phrase is always wrong and should be replaced by some other, more accurate phrase.” I have to confess to disliking it with an almost visceral emotion, mainly because I was taught decades ago that it was utterly wrong.

However, a close study of its grammar that I outline in a follow-up piece suggests that it’s an exact parallel to composed of and that dislike of it is based on convention rather than logic. Opposition to it is weakening: the American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style records that 63% of its advisory panel approved of is comprised of in 1996 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 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.”)

However, having noted that the times they are a-changing, I have to say that it would be wise for a serious writer who values their reputation to be careful of the comprised of form. It will still attract criticism.

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Page created 16 Nov 2013; Last updated 30 Nov 2013