Posted by: Jack Henry | August 15, 2012

Editor’s Corner: Comprise and Compose

Comprise and Compose

Comprise and compose are two words that many of us use incorrectly. So many of us misuse comprise, in fact, that the language may change to accommodate our mistakes. Until then, here are the rules for comprise and compose, according to a handful of different style guides. These selected paragraphs are brought to you by


It seems simple enough: “to comprise” means “to contain,” as in “The house comprises seven rooms.” In other words, this house has or contains seven rooms. When you use “comprise,” you’re talking about all the parts that make up something….

The important thing to remember when you’re using the word “comprise” is that the item that is the whole shebang comes first in the sentence; second come the items that are its parts. For example, you might say, “A full pack comprises 52 cards.” The pack is the whole shebang, so it comes first in the sentence. It would be wrong to say, “Fifty-two cards comprise a full pack.”

The Meaning of “Compose”

The fly in the ointment as far as the word “comprise” goes is the similar-sounding word “compose,” which means “to make up,” as in “Many ethnic groups compose our nation.”

Notice in this sentence that the parts come before the whole. If you wanted to start the sentence with the words “our nation,” guess which verb you’d have to use instead? Our friend “comprise”: “Our nation comprises many ethnic groups.” So, the parts compose the whole, but the whole comprises the parts.

“Is Comprised Of” and “Is Composed Of”

Now let’s talk about the phrases “is comprised of” and “is composed of.” One of these is allowed, and one is not. The one you can say is “is composed of,” so you could say, “Our nation is composed of many ethnic groups.” On the other hand, most grammar sources I checked agree that “is comprised of” is an incorrect phrase. Just as you can’t say, “The house includes of seven rooms,” you can’t say, “The house is comprised of seven rooms” (5). You have to say, “The house comprises seven rooms.”

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