Defining Moments: How language shapes our lives

No compromise on compose and comprise

sprovost@thetribunenews.comNovember 1, 2013 

Steve Provost

Yes, I’ve decided to write an entire column about one simple rule. It’s broken so often, I almost feel as though I’m 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 I’m determined to fight the good fight and be a cheerleader for an oft-ignored word.

I’ll try to remain composed.

Composed. That’s the word. It’s 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 we’ve developed amnesia concerning its existence or developed a deep-seated subconscious aversion to it.

Oh, sure, it’s fine to talk about a symphony Beethoven composed. And it’s just as acceptable preferable even — to remain composed (in control of one’s 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 won’t 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.

COMPRISED!

The team is comPRISED of athletes! Wow, that sounds impressive!

Except it’s wrong. The word we want is that same old seemingly mundane standby, comPOSED. No, they don’t mean the same thing.

Here’s the clue that something’s amiss: If you’re using the word “comprised” directly in front of the word “of,” it doesn’t work. That’s 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 doesn’t 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, it’s a swing and a miss.

You’re saying the same thing when you say “comprised of.” All of a sudden, it doesn’t 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 wasn’t 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 you’ll see how silly it sounds. Four rooms include a house? Huh? Well, I suppose that’s possible if each of the four rooms has a dollhouse inside, but in general …

The moral of the story? Ignore Daffy Duck. You won’t 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 that’s 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.

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