Win the “comprise” prize

The phrase “is comprised of” is always wrong. No matter how many times you see it in print, you should not pick up this phrase for your own writing. Here is why.

“Comprise” means to contain, embrace or include. So a larger thing comprises (that is, contains or includes) various parts. A zoo comprises lions, tigers, bears, birds, elephants and anteaters. You can see why people might think that they can turn the word around and make it passive, but if you substitute a form of “include” or “contain” you can see how wrong it sounds. The zoo is included of (is contained of) lions, tigers, bears, birds, elephants and anteaters.

Sometimes, writers have heard that they need to use “comprise,” not “is comprised of,” but they confuse the use by having the parts as the subject. This is an example of the incorrect use: The lions, tigers, bears, birds, elephants and anteaters comprise (substitute “constitute”) the zoo.

Just remember this rule: The whole comprises the parts; the parts constitute (or make up) the whole. (Many usage books address this in an entry on “compose, comprise and constitute.”)

Here is how to fix the “is comprised of” error. You can write instead “is made up of” or “is composed of.” The zoo is made up of lions, tigers, bears, birds, elephants and anteaters.

Here are some examples, culled from stories published in The N&O (some from wire services and some from staff writers), of correct and incorrect usage:

In an unexpected second straight day of labor negotiations, the league and the union branched out into other discussions, such as the potential formation of a competition committee that would be comprised of player and team representatives, NHL chief legal officer Bill Daly said in a statement. (From a sports story about professional hockey, May 12, 2005) — The phrase should be “would be composed of.”

The Division I Board of Directors, which has the final say on the 12-game proposal, is comprised of university presidents and chancellors. (From a sports story about Division I football, April 13, 2005) — Again, the phrase should be “is composed of.”

The panel selecting the songs was comprised of music critics, recording artists, producers, label executives and songwriters. (From a column about a list of top 500 pop songs, Dec. 4, 2004) — Here the writer could have written “comprised,” instead of “is comprised of.” The panel is a whole and the music critics, recording artists, etc., are the parts.

The commission comprises judges, lawyers and appointees charged with enforcing the code of ethics for the state’s 350 judges. (From news stories about a tax evasion case in federal court case, March 30 and 31, 2005) — Hurrah! This is correct.

The museum comprises five distinct boxes which will house three galleries, an auditorium and an office building set in a circle connected by glass and steel designed to blend the inside with the woodsy area around it. (From a feature story about Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, March 5, 2005) — The whole (museum) encompasses five distinct boxes. Correct. However, I would change “which” to “that.” See the earlier blog entry on “that” and “which.”

The exhibition comprises 74 paintings, sculptures and drawings put together by curators at NCMA and in Baltimore especially for the Raleigh museum, filling in gaps in the NCMA’s permanent collection and emphasizing a North Carolina connection. (From a feature story about the Matisse-Picasso exhibition at the N.C. Museum of Art, Oct. 3, 2004) — This is an example of correct use.

Drunken drivers comprised most of the arrest warrants at the Wake County Magistrate’s office Saturday morning. As is the norm on Christmas Day, burglar alarms (mostly false), traffic accidents and domestic disputes also taxed officers’ time. (From a news story about police duty on holidays, Dec. 26, 2004) — In this sentence, “constituted” would be a better choice.

Coupled with the Army Reserve, which is federally controlled, these part-time soldiers comprise roughly 40 percent of the force in Iraq. (From a news story about the N.C. National Guard deployment to Iraq, Aug. 15, 2004) — Again, the better choice is “constitute.”

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.