The whole comprises the parts

Some usage guides use this way of steering writers away from “is comprised of”: “Comprise is best used in the active voice.” That doesn’t help writers understand the meaning of “comprise.”

Here is a sentence in the active voice:

Egerton plays hostess and she, Jarrell and a handful of others comprise the house band, Germantown Strings.

But “comprise” is closer in meaning to “contain” or “include,” not “make up.”

The best way to remember how to use “comprise” is to remember that the whole comprises the parts, instead of the parts “comprising” the whole. So the band comprises its members; the members do not “comprise” the band.

To edit the sentence above:

Egerton plays hostess and she, Jarrell and a handful of others make up the house band, Germantown Strings.

But the most important thing to remember is that “is comprised of” is always wrong — at least among careful writers. I realize that dictionaries, which are descriptive, recognize that some people use “comprise” to mean “compose” or “constitute” and that such usage is widespread. But many editors still find “is comprised of” grating and incorrect. Careful writers will avoid it.

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.