Grammar Bite: Compose vs. Comprise

by Erin Brenner on February 4, 2010

Which of these sentences is correct? (Hint: more than one may be correct.)

Three chapters and a glossary comprise the entirety of the book.
Three chapters and a glossary compose the book.
The book was comprised of three chapters and a glossary.
The book was composed of three chapters and a glossary.
The book comprises three chapters and a glossary.

As you might have guessed, today we’re tackling the compose/comprise argument. Careful writers and editors have definite opinions on whether the two words are interchangeable and whether is comprised of is acceptable. Let’s start with a couple dictionary definitions.

According to Merriam-Webster’s unabridged dictionary, comprise means “to include especially within a particular scope … sum up: a whole religion comprised within one book; comprised in the party slogan.” It defines compose, in part, as meaning:

to form by putting together two or more things, elements, or parts: put together: FASHION—now usually in passive: a well-composed body; composed of delegates from every state in the union

to form the substance of: CONSTITUTE: composed his personality—now used chiefly in passive: composed of many ingredients

American-Heritage defines comprise as “to consist of; be composed of” and “to compose; constitute,” noting the usage problem with the latter definition. It defines compose as “to make up the constituent parts of; constitute or form,” pointing to its usage note at comprise.

In its collegiate dictionary, Merriam-Webster notes that a usage like “The book was comprised of three chapters and a glossary” is “still attacked as wrong” although it’s been in use for over 300 years. M-W is seeing comprised of in more literary uses but warns the writer may be taken to task for it. Best to play it safe, it suggests, and choose something like “The book comprises three chapters and a glossary.”

What I like about American Heritage is that it doesn’t suggest that someone has her knickers in a twist for wanting to be precise in her writing and lays out the issue in plain English:

The traditional rule states that the whole comprises the parts and the parts compose the whole. In strict usage: The Union comprises 50 states. Fifty states compose (or constitute or make up) the Union. Even though careful writers often maintain this distinction, comprise is increasingly used in place of compose, especially in the passive: The Union is comprised of 50 states. Our surveys show that opposition to this usage is abating. In the 1960s, 53 percent of the Usage Panel found this usage unacceptable; in 1996, only 35 percent objected.

Both dictionaries, one more prescriptive, the other more descriptive, suggest that comprise can be used for compose and comprise of is increasingly used and acceptable, though careful writers should avoid both.

And you’re a careful writer, right? Let’s check in with the usage experts.

According to my pal Garner, in correct usage comprise means “the whole comprises the part,” while compose means “the whole is composed of the parts.” He also states that is comprised of is becoming “ubiquitous” (stage 4 in the Language-Change Index) but is still “considered poor usage” (175)

And what of Fowler, whom I reviewed last week? He doesn’t mention it, though Burchfield explains in his edition that this was an oversight in the final version and quotes an early tract with Fowler’s opinion (167–168). Both Fowler and Burchfield come down on the side of comprise not being the same as compose, and the latter offers plenty of examples, though he admits this may be a losing battle they’re fighting.

Many other experts side with more precise wording, including The Associated Press Stylebook, The Gregg Reference Manual, Words into Type, 21st Century Grammar Handbook, and Barbara Wallraff in Word Court.

It seems, then, the correct answer is, as it so often is in language, it depends. You can certainly get away with any of the sentences we started with and not be wholly condemnable:

Three chapters and a glossary comprise the entirety of the book.
Three chapters and a glossary compose the book.
The book was comprised of three chapters and a glossary.
The book was composed of three chapters and a glossary.
The book comprises three chapters and a book.

However, when you have to be understood, when first impressions truly count (and don’t they always in writing?), don’t use comprise to mean compose and don’t use is comprised of. Remember: the whole comprises the parts, and the parts compose the whole:

Three chapters and a glossary comprise the entirety of the book.
Three chapters and a glossary compose the book.
The book was comprised of three chapters and a glossary.
The book was composed of three chapters and a glossary.
The book comprises three chapters and a book.

What do you think? Would you use comprise to mean compose in formal writing? Would you dare to put is comprised of in your next book or business report? Let me know in the comments section!

7/21/11 Update: AP Stylebook link updated to newest version of the manual; typos fixed.

Previous post:

Next post: