The verb "comprise" comes to me naturally to use in certain situations, at odds with a legalistic sense of correctness. It's a word often used in patents, or patent applicaitons, where some invention or device is said to "comprise" several parts.

I would say from reading (just for example) some of those patents or patent applications, that the several claims that are often made in conjunction could equally well be said to "comprise" the invention.

Is that incorrect?

The word "comprise" is to me very similar in origin and meaning to another word in English: "comprehend" -- comprender in Spanish or comprendre in French -- meaning to grasp or encompass in a certain formal sense.

If two things, or two expressions of things, are being claimed or said to be "equal" -- then it should be equally valid to claim either expression to "comprise" or to "be comprised of" the other.

Is this considered wrong?

(Also for example "to possess" and "to be possessed of" are sometimes used interchangeably as well, the latter perhaps more for real than personal property.)

  • It would be essential to have at least an example of what you mean by "two things, or two expressions of thing …said to be 'equal'", an example of two expressions for instance, as it is easy to confuse concepts. For example in mathematics the meaning of "two equal expressions" is clear, it is a defined concept; however, in linguistics I have never heard of anything such as equal expressions ("semantically equivalent expressions" or "expressions with the same meaning" is essentially what linguists refer to).
    – LPH
    Mar 22 '20 at 2:48
  • In "a+b+c=a+b" you can say that the expression on the left comprises that on the right as this is meaningful; however, in the actual mathematical language of today this is not what you would say: rather you would say something like "The expression on the left contains that on the right." or "The expression on the right is in the left member of the equation." or "The expression on the right figures on the left.", etc..
    – LPH
    Mar 22 '20 at 2:58

It's the other way around. The parts comprise the whole. That is, the parts make up the whole.

The whole is comprised of the sum of its parts. That is, it's made up of its parts.


Since it’s necessarily hierarchical, I don’t think it’s fair to say that the relation is symmetric, even if there is only one part, and traditionally the whole only comprises the parts. However, saying a whole “is comprised of” its parts, suggesting that the parts instead comprise the whole, is common enough in usage today that many dictionaries consider it a valid, if opposite, definition of the word:

Simply put, the traditional definition is similar to “contain”, while the newer, sometimes-controversial definition is synonymous with “compose”. A whole contains (is composed of) parts, parts compose (are contained by) a whole.

Some style guides, e.g. those of The Guardian & The Observer, Reuters, and The Times, do still advise against the latter or consider it incorrect.

Wiktionary has more details, including a note specifically on patents.

Incidentally, you’re right to think of comprendre, as “comprise” does indeed come from compris(e), its past participle.

  • 1
    This is confused. Lexico (which is not OED ... this has had to be pointed out far too many times on ELU) licenses both the 'be made up of' (consist of) transitive sense and the 'make up a whole' (constitute) transitive sense of comprise. It is comprise of for 'consist of' / 'comprise' that Lexico says is non-standard. May 26 '20 at 18:13
  • @EdwinAshworth Good point; I’ve changed it
    – cpmsmith
    May 26 '20 at 18:54

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