Compass - compasses

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There are two instruments, used for different purposes. (The first syllable is always pronounced like the verb 'come'; the second vowel is the shwa 'COME-pes', IPA: /ˈkʌm pəs/.)

  • An instrument for drawing circles which has two legs is always known, in formal English at any rate, as a pair of compasses. Sometimes, slightly less formally, it is just compasses (the plural form of the noun) - but this is usually when the fuller form has been used first.
  • The navigational instrument which is used to find North is a compass. This is true however it works, a magnetic compass, a gyro-compass or any other form.

An image that is famous to students of English Literature is John Donne's image of the togetherness of two individuals in love as

If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses as two,
Thy soul the fixed foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if th’other do.
And though it in the centre sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect as that comes home.

(From A Valediction Forbidding Mourning). Note that the poet regards the compasses (in current use 'pair of compasses') as "twin" and "two".