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.”


Our country has ten provinces.

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


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.