Yes, Ive decided to write an entire column about one simple rule. Its broken so often, I almost feel as though Im whistling into the wind every time I complain about seeing it broken in print, but I have to make one last stand on this one. I may have as much chance as General Custer of winning this battle, but Im determined to fight the good fight and be a cheerleader for an oft-ignored word.
Ill try to remain composed.
Composed. Thats the word. Its a decent word. Nothing wrong with it at all. Yet about three-quarters of the English-speaking population in this country seems to have something against it. Either weve developed amnesia concerning its existence or developed a deep-seated subconscious aversion to it.
Oh, sure, its fine to talk about a symphony Beethoven composed. And its just as acceptable preferable even to remain composed (in control of ones self) rather than flying off the handle in a fit of rage.
But when it comes time to state that a police department is composed of trained officers or a theater company is composed of actors, the word seems to stick in our collective throat. It wont come out, even if we try to pry it loose with a mental crowbar.
Another word pushes its way to the front of our brain, jumping up and down like Daffy Duck on three cups of espresso. Pick me! Pick me! this word shouts, rushing from our brain down to our diaphragm, back up through our vocal cords, lickety-split across our tongue and out through our parted lips before we even know what hit us.
Then, there it is.
The team is comPRISED of athletes! Wow, that sounds impressive!
Except its wrong. The word we want is that same old seemingly mundane standby, comPOSED. No, they dont mean the same thing.
Heres the clue that somethings amiss: If youre using the word comprised directly in front of the word of, it doesnt work. Thats because comprise is a near-synonym for encompass or include. Try using either of those terms with the word of afterward: Sesame Street is included of Muppets? Nah. Just doesnt have a good ring to it. The political party is encompassed of egotistical control freaks? It may be true, but in terms of sentence structure, its a swing and a miss.
Youre saying the same thing when you say comprised of. All of a sudden, it doesnt sound quite so smooth rolling off the tongue (more like a flat tire going ka-thump, ka-thump, ka-thump on Highway 1 before the latest resurfacing project started).
The phrase composed of, on the other hand, is perfectly acceptable. It means the same thing as made up of: The police department is made up of trained officers. There. That wasnt so painful, was it?
One more thing worth mentioning: That which is larger always comprises (includes, encompasses) smaller elements. So you never want to say, Four rooms comprise the house. Again, just substitute the word include in this sentence, and youll see how silly it sounds. Four rooms include a house? Huh? Well, I suppose thats possible if each of the four rooms has a dollhouse inside, but in general
The moral of the story? Ignore Daffy Duck. You wont win a prize for using comprised, no matter how badly you might want to utter it. (Well, you might win a booby prize from your third-grade English teacher, but thats not the kind of trophy you want to display over your fireplace.)
So keep your composure. Think of Beethoven, and make some beautiful music with your prose.
Steve Provost is a Tribune copy editor.