A recent article about the words comprise and compose for the Chronicle of Higher Education speaks directly to the prescriptivist / descriptivist opposition I wrote about in an earlier post for this blog (“Word for Word,” Sept. 16, 2014). The two words are like the outside and the inside of a glove. As the article’s author Geoffrey Pullum explains, compose means to “make up” or “constitute,” as in “a martini is composed of gin and dry vermouth,” whether stirred or, in James Bond fashion, shaken. The same word can also mean to “create,” as in composing a piece of music.
Comprise means to “embrace” or “include,” as in “a martini comprises gin and dry vermouth.” In every day parlance, “composed of” and “comprised of” are often used interchangeably. So someone might say, “a manhattan is comprised of bourbon whiskey and sweet vermouth,” as one would say, “a manhattan is composed of bourbon whiskey and sweet vermouth.” Strictly speaking, however, as two opposing ways of articulating the make-up of something, they should be used in opposition, such that “a manhattan comprises bourbon whiskey and sweet vermouth.” In effect, the phrase comprised of has no purpose. It’s been appropriated from composed of in ignorance of and obliviousness to the meaning of comprise.
Even so, given that almost everyone, highly respectable writers included, uses “comprised of” incorrectly—to mean “composed of”—why not just let the language evolve so that it can comprise either usage? Besides, isn’t trying to eradicate such an ingrained mistake simply taking on a lost battle? Indeed, the argument for tolerating the technically incorrect usage is strong, given that arguments to the contrary will likely go either ignored or rarely heeded.
Pullum takes the opposite stance, though, and with reasoning that recalls my argument in that earlier blog post. Essentially, a reader who knows what comprise means stands to become needlessly confused if it’s used to mean compose, and a reader who doesn’t know the difference may make the false assumption that, in a certain instance, the word comprise means compose, resulting in the reader’s misunderstanding. For me, whether choosing a word or creating a phrase, clarity is the chief concern.
One of the most difficult situations I encounter while teaching young writers is convincing them that they need to get out in front of their readers on matters like this one. I tell them that, when possible, readers should be learning about language from them, not vice verse, and I relate the time that I came upon the word riffle, which I didn’t know and thought was a mistake or typo for rifle, in the sense of search. When I consulted the dictionary, I encountered my ignorance and discovered a new word.
I suppose an alternative to keeping comprise and compose straight might be to meld them into one all-purpose word. Comprose anyone?