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I just wrote a sentence like this and I'm wondering I've used the word compose correctly.

In order to find the length of the train, you'll need to measure the individual cars it composes.

Is this correct, or would it be better phrased as "... of which it's composed"? Should I use another word, like comprise?

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In some contexts I might say something like "To establish the weight of this box of frogs, we could weigh the empty box, and the individual frogs therein". –  FumbleFingers Jul 6 '12 at 19:19
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3 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

No. Comprises is right.

Compose indicates joining things together. "The cars compose the train; the train is composed of cars."

Comprise indicates splitting a composite (see what I did there?). "The train comprises its cars."

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But equally (and more commonly in my experience) the cars comprise the train. –  TimLymington Jul 6 '12 at 19:39
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@TimLymington, also see wiktionary's usage note for comprise: "The most recent usages, compose and constitute, whereby the passive form effectively means “the members comprise the team”, are usually informal and often considered incorrect. By classical definition, a team comprises its members, whereas the members compose the team. It is not proper to use comprise in place of compose. ... These usages are, however, quite common, with the "compose" variation being more common than the "constitute" one." –  jwpat7 Jul 7 '12 at 14:10
    
@jwpat7: fair enough, mea culpa. –  TimLymington Jul 7 '12 at 21:17
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The train does not compose its parts.

You could say it as:

In order to find the length of the train, you'll need to measure the individual cars that it is composed of.

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Why use a relative clause? No verb is needed here; the cars aren't doing anything, after all.

Try either

In order to find the length of the train, you need to measure the individual cars in it.

or

In order to find the length of the train, you need to measure its individual cars.

(The contracted will is also unnecessary in context, so I deleted it too.)

Simpler is clearer.

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I'm actually trying to emphasize the fact that a "train" comprises "cars." (The real sentence isn't about trains and cars.) –  Patrick McElhaney Jul 6 '12 at 18:15
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Simpler is still clearer. If you want to emphasize something, go right ahead and say it. Spend an extra sentence. They don't cost much, and they're easier to follow than fancy implications. –  John Lawler Jul 6 '12 at 18:26
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