"Comprise" Versus "Compose"

Perhaps our craziest memory trick yet.

Bonnie Mills, read by Mignon Fogarty,
September 18, 2009
Episode #188

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compose compriseToday Bonnie Trenga will help us boldly go where many grammarians have gone before: deep into the dictionary to discover the true meaning and correct usage of the word “comprise.” Some of you may feel that this is an alien word to be avoided at all costs—because it is tricky. Others will be more willing to communicate with this strange species. Helping us on our journey will be an odd mnemonic device.

The Meaning of “Comprise”

It seems simple enough: “to comprise” means “to contain” (1), as in “The house comprises seven rooms.” In other words, this house has or contains seven rooms. When you use “comprise,” you’re talking about all the parts that make up something. Usually. More on that a little later.

The important thing to remember when you’re using the word “comprise” is that the item that is the whole shebang comes first in the sentence; second come the items that are its parts. For example, you might say, “A full pack comprises 52 cards.” The pack is the whole shebang, so it comes first in the sentence. It would be wrong to say, “Fifty-two cards comprise a full pack.” Likewise, America comprises 50 states, not fifty states comprise America. In this sentence, America is the whole shebang, so it comes first in the sentence. The whole comprises the parts.

The Meaning of “Compose”

The fly in the ointment as far as the word “comprise” goes is the similar-sounding word “compose,” which means “to make up,” as in “Many ethnic groups compose our nation.”

Notice in this sentence that the parts come before the whole. If you wanted to start the sentence with the words “our nation,” guess which verb you’d have to use instead? Our friend “comprise”: “Our nation comprises many ethnic groups.” So, the parts compose the whole, but the whole comprises the parts.

Next: Comprised Of Versus Composed Of


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