Sunday, January 16, 2011

Composing and Comprising

In high school, I learned that there were some French people who wanted to keep English words out of their language.  In response, I vowed to eliminate all French borrowings from my speech.  I can't remember what this involved; maybe I avoided rendez-vous or bouquet.  I hadn't heard of croissants back then.
Nowadays, I have a much less ambitious linguistic project:  using comprise correctly.  By occasionally sneaking a comprise into casual conversation--"You, know, my household comprises just me and two cats!"--I hope to put off the day when compose and comprise become synonymous.  Someday every words will mean everything.  I'm doing my small part to hold off linguistic chaos.

The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style
comprise.   A. 

And compose.
Correct use of these words is simple, but increasingly rare. The parts compose the whole; the whole comprises the parts. The whole is composed of the parts; the parts are comprised in the whole. Comprise, the more troublesome word in this pair, means “to contain; to consist of”—e.g.: “Summit Hall Farm comprises several hundred acres on the exterior portion of the original settlement of the Gaither family” (Wash. Times).


Erroneous Use of is comprised of.
The phrase is comprised of is always wrong and should be replaced by some other, more accurate phrase—e.g.: “The Rhode Island Wind Ensemble is comprised of [read has] 50 professional and amateur musicians, ranging in age from 15 to 82” (Providence J.-Bull.).


Comprise for are comprised in or constitute.
If the whole comprises the parts, the reverse can't be true—e.g.: “Of the 50 stocks that comprise [read make up] the index, 40 had gains, 8 had losses and 2 were unchanged” (Fla. Today).


Comprise for are.
This is an odd error based on a misunderstanding of the meaning of comprise. E.g.: “They comprise [read are] three of the top four names in the batting order of the 30 most influential sports people in B.C. for 1997” (Vancouver Sun).

How to cite this entry:
"comprise"  The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style. Bryan A. Garner. Oxford University Press, 2000. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press.  Harvard University Library.  14 January 2011


KarenK said...

Ha! That "comprise/compose" thing always gets my goat. There's a Jack-in-The-Box commercial currently running wherein Jack says, "comprised of..." Another word that's commonly misused is "myriad." You can have "myriad choices," but not "a myriad of choices." Bah!

Chuckbert said...

Oh, come on...language evolves. We don't speak Chaucer's English so what's the problem with being part of moving the language to the next point. There's a myriad of bigger problems to be concerned with.

Colleen said...

Thoughtful evolution is one thing; we may need new words or new ways to use old ones. But, if we are assuming that evolution equals improvement, what good comes of making two distinct words synonymous?

Chuckbert said...

Let me quote two usage notes from my favorite language reference, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition.

For "Comprise"
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 (orconstitute 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.

For "Myriad"
Throughout most of its history in English myriad was used as a noun, as in a myriad of men. In the 19th century it began to be used in poetry as an adjective, as in myriad men. Both usages in English are acceptable, as in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Myriad myriads of lives.” This poetic, adjectival use became so well entrenched generally that many people came to consider it as the only correct use. In fact, both uses in English are parallel with those of the original ancient Greek. The Greek word mūrias,from which myriad derives, could be used as either a noun or an adjective, but the noun mūrias was used in general prose and in mathematics while the adjective mūrias was used only in poetry.

Get used to hearing "disinterested" used when purists insist on "uninterested"!

If people understand what is meant it isn't a big deal that the use of a word changes.

Language evolves.

Chuckbert said...

While I'm at it, there's a nice YouTube video of Stephen Fry's "Language" that explains my position much better than I can.

Colleen said...

Well, the visual elements of the Fry video were nice. But I couldn't understand why he kept referring to spritely, haywire, creative language, then gives examples such as "five items or less." He seems to be swinging between 2 poles: snooty presciptivist and champion-of-the-little guy. These are silly extremes. He needs to hold the tension between the opposites until a third way reveals itself. Yes, many poets use word cockeyed in poems; and whatever effect they are going for DEPENDs on the reader knowing the standard usage.
It's true we don't speak Chaucer's English. But literacy, books, and recorded speech are rather more widespread nowadays. We have the means to avoid pointless variation. As I said before, I applaud real creativity in language. But what is "evolutionary" about the random kind of changes we have been discussing? They shouldn't be compared to the development of the opposable thumb. How does making "compose" and "comprise" synomymous serve our survival? What's creative about it? Yes, it may be an inevitable change, and I will change my own usage if that happens. But why romanticize it?
If you want to read beautiful, lively, creative writing on the subject, I suggest Paridigms Lost by John Simon.
Well, it's satifying to get some long comments, anyway.

Colleen said...

Here's an interesting story of a fuddy-duddy prescriptivist: This guy declined to meet another writer who "had never learned to use the semicolon." So who was this? Some repressed, joyless, conservative? It was James Joyce. I guess Ulysses must be a staid, predicatable novel.

OK, keep those comments coming.