Comprise (grammar)

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To comprise is a verb that gives much difficulty. This arises from a lack of clarity about its meaning. (There is also an article about its spelling.) The basic meaning of 'to comprise' is like that of 'to be composed of', 'to be made up of', or 'to contain'. 'The University of Hull comprises two campuses, one in Hull and the other in Scarborough.' This is a good construction in the active voice - NEVER write, in the active voice, 'It comprises of'.

  • A distinction is drawn by careful writers between comprise and include. This distinction is akin to that between the abbreviations i.e. and e.g.:
    • comprise is used to mean 'Here is a complete list of those things which make up the thing of which I am speaking', in other words, it is rather like 'i.e.'
Etymological note: it is derived from the Latin comprehendĕre, ~ 'to take [in] with [all of]'.
    • To include, on the other hand, is used for 'Here are some of the things which go to make up the thing of which I am talking' - for example, 'The United Nations includes France and Korea', says the careful writer; but if she (or he) says 'The United Nations comprises ... ', s/he has then to list the 190 nations that make up the UN. ('Include' is derived from in, 'within' + claudĕre, 'to enclose, shut in': in other words, something included in a category is one of those within it, not all of them.)

So one difficulty in the use of 'comprise' is that of precision in the use of vocabulary, as between comprise and include. A second is the distinction between compose and comprise. (It is possible that some confusion arises because the sounds of these two are similar.)

  • When you are talking about the items which form, or add up to, a whole set, be careful. The items constitute, make up or compose the set; the set comprises [all] the items. ('To comprise' is related etymologically to the adjective comprehensive, meaning 'including everything [or everybody]', as well as 'to comprehend'.)
    • It is an error to use either compose or comprise in the active voice with the preposition of. 'England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland compose the United Kingdom' has the same meaning as 'The United Kingdom comprises England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland', and both are acceptable; whereas both 'England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland compose of the United Kingdom' and 'England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland comprise of the United Kingdom' are wrong.

A third difficulty that arises with comprise is in an area of grammar, usage and academic taste.

  • In the passive voice, a whole may be composed of its several parts. Fowler in 1931 quoted, as an error, a phrase from The Times: 'A few companies, comprised mainly of militiamen', suggesting that the writer should have written either composed of or comprising. (It is an example of the Fowler brother's third category of malaprops.) However, Burchfield's Fowler, of 1996, says that the passive construction be comprised of, which was first recorded in 1874, is a disputed or erroneous use, but "Opposition to this ... is ... weakening." The dispute over this use is founded on the meaning, as outlined above, 'to be composed of', 'to be made up of', or 'to contain'. One cannot say that a set 'is contained of', so one cannot say 'it is comprised of' either. You will find that some academics still 'oppose' this use, but it is not necessarily wrong for all of them, nor any other critic. It is more acceptable to write, for such readers, in the active voice: 'It comprises', or use the active participle comprising.