Compose vs. Comprise

by Heather

Lexical Vexations

Compose v. 1. to make up, to constitute.

Comprise v. 1. to include  2.  to compose or constitute.

The second definition of comprise is considered by many to be incorrect, though it has been used in this way since the 18th century. This controversial use is also very common in colloquial speech.

Controversial Use: His oeuvre is comprised of more than two dozen award-winning photographic installations and six one-channel video installations.

I came across this use again at work today and had to decide whether to leave it as it was or change it. Because we have a large readership that includes many letter-writing grammarians who won’t hesitate to let us know if they deem that we’ve missed an error, I chose to be fussy and use compose in its place. There are actually two quick fixes you can choose from if you think your readership will call you out on the controversial use of comprise:

Safe Use: His oeuvre is composed of more than two dozen award-winning photographic installations and six one-channel video installations.

Safe Use: His oeuvre comprises more than two dozen award-winning photographic installations and six one-channel video installations.

The Comprise Litmus Test: If you can replace comprise with include and your sentence stands, you’re safe from the fusspots.

Still vexed? You can find a complete list of the Word Blog’s lexical vexations here.

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