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The whole comprises the parts, for example

The board comprises five members.

and the parts compose the whole such as

Five members compose the board.

The preceding sentence can be written in passive construction as follows:

The board is composed of five members.

What about the first one? Can I ever have a passive construction with comprise like the following? Doing so always implies the meaning of composed of.

The board is comprised of five members. [appears to be a wrong sense]

Or is it only composed of that is used for turning sentences into passive construction that use comprise as a main verb?

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This is addressed directly by the usage note in The AHDEL at thefreedictionary.com/comprise – Edwin Ashworth Oct 24 '12 at 22:13
Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage on this subject: books.google.com/… – nohat Oct 24 '12 at 22:35
Related ELU question: Does a whole "compose" its parts? – Zairja Oct 25 '12 at 13:16
up vote 12 down vote accepted

The usage you question is definitely a usage that is frequently criticized. "Grammar Girl" Mignon Fogarty writes:

most grammar sources I checked (2, 3, 4) agree that ‘is comprised of’ is an incorrect phrase.

She cites many of the usual suspects in schoolmarm-style prescriptive rules of this sort: Garner's Modern American Usage, Bryson’s Dictionary for Writers and Editors, and Walraff’s Word Court. Strunk and White weigh in equally stridently:

Literally, "embrace": A zoo comprises mammals, reptiles, and birds (because it "embraces," or includes them). But animals do not comprise ("embrace") a zoo—they constitute a zoo.

The Corpus of Contemporary American English has hundreds of examples of “is comprised of”, mostly in academic writing. Despite being labeled as “an incorrect phrase”, the usage shows up frequently, and grew in popularity throughout the 20th century.

Google Ngram for "is comprised of"

Dictionaries have usage notes indicating that this usage is criticized, but they tend to be more descriptive, and list “compose” as a sense for “comprise,” as does American Heritage and Merriam-Webster. American Heritage notes that opposition to the usage has abated in their usage panel between the 1960s and 1996.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage has a very extensive entry detailing the history of this usage rule. They were only able to antedate the rule to 1903, which if you look at the Google Ngram for “is comprised of”, is right about when the usage started to take off.

Generally speaking, it does not seem that the continuous tide of criticism of this usage has slowed its growth. If we compare relative use of passive constructions of “composed” and “comprised”, we see that this disputed usage is rapidly approaching parity of usage with the recommended replacement:

Google Ngram comparing "is comprised of" with "is composed of"

It does appear that the new sense of “comprise” is an inexorable change in the language. Whether or not you want to use is up to you—now that you know it is frequently criticized you may want to avoid it if you want to avoid being criticized.

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Can I say (1) My name comprises four letters. (2) Four letters compose my name. (3) My name is composed of four letters or should I simply say - my name is made up of four letters or four letters make up name? – Tiny Oct 26 '12 at 8:11

The whole includes the parts.

The parts are included in the whole.

The board comprises five members.

Five members are comprised in the board.

While include is not synonymous with comprise, the structures are parallel. The last example is the structure that logically fits, even though it seems clumsy.

The structure the board is comprised of five members stands the logic of part and whole on its head.

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Can I say (1) My name comprises four letters. (2) Four letters compose my name. (3) My name is composed of four letters or should I simply say - my name is made up of four letters or four letters make up name? – Tiny Oct 26 '12 at 8:12
@Tiny All of the above are correct. Given the confusion by many people about comprise and compose, I would avoid them in most circumstances. I only use them in legal writing where confusion seems mandatory. (How else could we charge so much to explain ourselves?) – bib Oct 26 '12 at 12:10

protected by RegDwigнt Mar 19 '13 at 7:47

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