Word Choice – Comprise Versus Compose

Marion’s question: “It would be helpful if you dealt with the correct usage of the verb ‘comprise.’ I believe it is incorrectly used in the example from another BizWritingTip: ‘The NAFTA Secretariat is comprised of a Canadian Section, a Mexican Section and a United States Section.’ ”

BizWritingTip response: Back in the days of the dinosaurs, I was taught this saying to remember when to use which word: The whole is composed of its parts, and the parts comprise the whole.

Still confused? Think of it this way. If the whole idea comes first in the sentence and the parts second, then use “compose.”

Example

Our country has ten provinces.

If the parts come first followed by the whole sentence, then use “comprise.”

Example

Ten provinces comprise our country.

Therefore, our reader is right. It should be “The NAFTA Secretariat is composed of a Canadian Section, a Mexican Section and a United States Section.”

But is the NAFTA website really incorrect?

According to the Oxford Canadian Dictionary, “Such uses as The panel is comprised of five individuals are strongly opposed by some, who prefer The panel is composed of five individuals. The disputed uses are common, however, and considered unobjectionable by many.”

The examples in American Dictionary Online support this. The Oxford Dictionary of English does not.

It seems then that in North American either word is acceptable. In Britain, the distinction is still in place. Personally, I will stick with the Brits on this one.

4 replies
  1. Jackie
    Jackie says:

    In the example, “Our country has ten provinces” is not the “whole” the country? In which case, I might have phrased it, “Our country is composed of 10 provinces”. Whereas, if the sentence had been “There are 10 provinces in our country.”, then the “whole” being the country, would be second causing me to write it as, “Ten provinces comprise our country.” Why am I seeing it this way?

    Reply
    • Jane Watson
      Jane Watson says:

      Jackie, I am sorry I was not clear in the example. If you can write “Our country has ten provinces,” you can also write “Our country is composed of 10 provinces.” Your thinking is correct. Composed is the right word because the sentence starts with the whole idea – “country.”

      This is a British rule. North American English permits either word to be used.

      Reply
  2. Robyn
    Robyn says:

    “BizWritingTip response: Back in the days of the dinosaurs, I was taught this saying to remember when to use which word: … the parts comprise the whole.”

    With respect, this is the opposite of what North American editors have always been taught – see, for example, the Chicago Manual of Style “the whole comprises the parts.” This is endorsed by Theodore Bernstein and a number of other authoritative grammar mavens. Yes, you’re safer using “composed of” but equally correct is “comprises” – not “comprised of” which Chicago and others say ” is “poor usage.”

    Reply

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