Comprise, compose—who knows the difference?

Jan 13th, 2009 | By John Roach | Category: Grammar

Comprise has to be one of the most misused words in English. Its close relationship with compose, its logical opposite, often results in one being used for the other. But they are fraternal twins, not identical.

Comprise means to contain. Compose means to make up.

Here’s an example to illustrate the difference.

The United States comprises 50 states. Fifty states compose the United States.

The whole comprises the parts. The parts compose the whole.

Most writers err by making active comprise into a passive is comprised of.

WRONG: A deck of cards is comprised of 52 cards.

RIGHT: A deck of cards comprises 52 cards. A deck of cards is composed of 52 cards.

Comprise means the same thing as is composed of, so it is safe to substitute one for the other. Just remember that, as Dan Santow points out, comprise is never followed by of.

This article was written by John Roach

John is a writer and copy editor. You can follow him on twitter at @johnwroachiii. To see more posts click here

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