The Language Perfectionist: A Comprise Winner

Among the many misused words in the English language, one of the most common is surely comprise. Consider these examples, found via a quick Internet search:

  • “The social theorists who comprise what is today known as the ‘Frankfurt School’ have exerted an unprecedented influence…”
  • “What are the three main notes that comprise [Mariah Carey’s] fragrance, M?”
  • “Florida is comprised of three main aquifers…”

In the above examples, the meaning of the word is reversed. The whole comprises the parts. The parts constitute (or compose or form or make up) the whole.

Here’s how to use comprise and constitute correctly: A baseball team comprises nine players. Nine players constitute a baseball team.

The meaning of the word comprise is contain, include, embrace. If you’re not sure you’re using comprise correctly, substitute embrace or include to see if the sentence still makes sense.

A similar test works for the passive tense. One would never say “is embraced of.” Thus, the frequently used phrase “is comprised of” is always wrong.

Some years ago, I clipped an ad for a book on, ironically, effective writing. The ad claims that the book “covers the big picture of what comprises poor writing.” Of course, the word should be constitutes.

[Ed Note: For more than three decades, Don Hauptman was a direct-response copywriter. He is author of the wordplay books Cruel and Unusual Puns and Acronymania, and is writing a new book that also blends language and humor.]

Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant for more than 30 years. He may be best known for his headline “Speak Spanish [French, German, etc.] Like a Diplomat!” This familiar series of ads sold spectacular numbers of recorded foreign language lessons for Audio-Forum, generating revenues that total in the tens of millions of dollars. In the process, the ad achieved the status of an industry classic. Don’s work is mentioned in three major college advertising textbooks, and examples of his promotions are cited in the books Million Dollar Mailings (1992) and World's Greatest Direct Mail Sales Letters (1996). In a column in Advertising Age, his name was included in a short list of direct-marketing “superstars.” He has a parallel career as a writer on language and wordplay. His celebration of spoonerisms, Cruel and Unusual Puns (Dell, 1991), received rave reviews and quickly went into a second printing. His second book was Acronymania (Dell, 1993). Recently, Don retired from full-time copywriting in order to focus on other interests, including his passion for “recreational linguistics.” He is at work on a new book in that genre. He is a regular contributor to the magazine Word Ways and writes “The Language Perfectionist,” a weekly column on grammar and usage, for Early to Rise. Don is author of The Versatile Freelancer,an e-book from American Writers and Artists, Inc. (AWAI) that shows copywriters – and almost anyone – how to diversify their careers into consulting, training, critiquing, and speaking.