Comprised, revised

Q: What’s all the upset over “comprised of”? I understand that a software engineer has purged Wikipedia 47,000 times regarding this usage. What is the problem?

A: In our opinion, the Wikipedian is fighting a losing battle. Increasingly, people are coming to feel as you do about this usage:  “What’s all the upset?”

The traditional view is that “comprise” means “include” or “contain” or “consist of,” so the whole always “comprises” the parts (as in “The Union comprises 50 states”).

“Comprise,” according to this view, shouldn’t be used the other way around. That is, it shouldn’t mean “make up,” “compose,” or “constitute,” as in “Fifty states comprise the Union” (the active use) or “The Union is comprised of 50 states” (the passive).

But the insistence on this traditional view is getting weaker as the years go by. Common usage is forcing lexicographers and usage writers (like us) to review the matter.

When we last wrote about “comprised of,” in 2010, we noted all the usual arguments against it, but added that “comprised of” was a very common usage and that we wouldn’t be surprised if it became widely accepted as standard English by lexicographers.

Today, nearly all dictionary publishers recognize the two nontraditional uses of “comprise” as standard English: (1) “to comprise,” meaning to make up or constitute, and (2) “to be comprised of,” meaning to be made up of.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), along with the larger Merriam Webster’s Unabridged, have long treated both as standard.

The Unabridged notes that #1 “dates to the late 18th century and is less likely to attract criticism.” But #2, the note says, is a “newer passive construction” that dates to the late 19th century, and this is the one “that is commonly cited as an error.”

Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.) accepts both too. It cautions, however, that “comprised of” (as in “a nation comprised of thirteen states”) is “still regarded by a few to be a loose usage.”

The Random House Kernerman Webster’s College Dictionary also treats both usages as standard. It notes: “These later uses are often criticized, but they occur with increasing frequency even in formal speech and edited writing.”

British dictionary publishers agree, including Longman, Macmillan, Cambridge, Collins and Oxford Dictionaries online, in their British as well as American editions. We’ll quote just a few of their examples:

“Women comprise a high proportion of part-time workers” and “The committee is comprised of well-known mountaineers” (Longman).

“People aged 65 and over now comprise nearly 20% of the population” and “The course is comprised of two essays plus three assignments” (Macmillan).

But the verdict isn’t unanimous—or not yet, at least. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) still labels the use of “comprise” to mean “compose,” “make up,” or “constitute” as a “usage problem.”

“The traditional rule states that the whole comprises the parts and the parts compose the whole,” American Heritage says in a usage note. “Even though many writers maintain this distinction, comprise is often used in place of compose, especially in the passive: The Union is comprised of 50 states. Our surveys show that opposition to this usage has abated but has not disappeared.”

When surveyed in 2011, American Heritage says, 32 percent of the dictionary’s Usage Panel still found the construction unacceptable.

We agree with you that the resistance to this use of “comprise” to is difficult to understand. Apart from its widespread use by respected writers, there’s the historical evidence to consider.

The Oxford English Dictionary has many citations, dating from 1794, for the active verb meaning “to constitute, make up, compose.” And it has examples of the passive use, “to be comprised of,” dating from 1874.

It’s time to admit that the meaning of “comprise” has changed. Pat’s grammar guide Woe Is I includes the traditional view, but she has added the new usage to the notes she’s collecting for a new fourth edition.

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