Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Word Best Forgotten

By Davilynn Furlow

Here’s another little writing tip that was inspired by a discussion from a LinkedIn group we belong to. The question posted was, “Are ‘compose’ and ‘comprise’ interchangeable?”

The person who started the discussion actually knew the answer and shared some academic thoughts on the subject, including some in defense of allowing a sentence like, “The book was comprised of three chapters and a glossary.”

Every right-thinking writer and editor, however, knows that to say “was comprised of” runs the risk of causing a fingernails-on-chalkboard reaction among educated readers. No matter how many times “comprised of” is used, it’s still wrong, and to let it go unchallenged is to contribute to dumbing down the English language.

The correct use of the word “comprise” is as follows: “The union comprises 50 states.” To say, “Fifty states comprise the union,” or “The union is comprised of fifty states” is flat wrong.

Bill’s response to the posted question was to advise writers to leave “comprise” alone and never use it. Used incorrectly it’s annoying, and used correctly it is awkward. When I come across the rare proper use of “comprise,” I automatically say to the writer, “good job,” which means the flow has been interrupted.

One person responding to the LinkedIn post pointed out that the Latin root word for “comprise” means “comprehend,” “contain” or “include.” You can’t turn those words around and get “fifty states comprise the union.”

Another suggested also forgetting about “compose” in favor of “consists.” “It is instantly recognizable…and is so commonplace the reader tends not to notice it – for either good or bad reasons,” she said.

So, are “compose” and “comprise” interchangeable? Of course not!

Thanks to Erin Brenner, Rosanne Dingli, Kathleen Much, Curt Mattson and Benjamin Lukoff, whose comments are represented here.

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