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.]