Which Word Wednesday: Compose vs. Comprise

By October 20, 2010 culture, language No Comments

Some word pairs are like identical twins. Unless you get to know each one individually, you always mix them up.

Compose and comprise are twins in the linguistic sense. I can’t tell them apart, so I am forced to look to the dictionary with every encounter. It is frustrating to do so time and again . . . I wonder, will the usage ever stick?

Even if I have to consult the dictionary each time, I want to honor these two words as just that—two words with distinct definitions. Certainly they do not want to be lumped together as some conglomerate. Most twins I know fiercely wish to be known as the individuals they are. So let’s see if we can find some distinguishing trait that will help us identify them.

And perhaps by featuring this duo in a Which Word Wednesday match up will help. Here’s what we find from the Oxford American Dictionary:

compose :: verb
(usu. be composed) (of elements) constitute or make up (a whole)

comprise :: verb
consist of; be made up of; include, contain

Compose is typically preceded by a to be verb form, as in this example given by the OAD: The book is composed of five sections.

Comprise, however, is not to be preceded by a to be verb form. OAD explains it like this:

The book comprises five sections. Never say: The book is comprised of five sections.

Mark Davidson’s Right, Wrong, and Risky: A Dictionary of Today’s American English Usage gives further insight for distinguishing between the look-alikes:

The whole comprises—consists of—all its parts. The United States comprises fifty states.1

Taking Davidson’s example, let’s apply the rule for compose to form a second example:

The whole is composed of the parts. The United States is composed of fifty states.

[polldaddy poll=3956507]

My WWW verdict? Compose and comprise need to get distinctive haircuts to help us tell these near identical twins apart. If that isn’t an option, I’ll just have to settle for keeping my word resources at the ready for the next compose/comprise encounter. (Watch out, words! Here I come.)

What’s your verdict? Do some word pairs dupe you every time? Submit those in the comments—I’d love to know which words are causing the most difficulty. And cast your vote in the poll—I sure hope I’m not the only one who needs to look up the same words every time they cross my path.

Check out previous Which Word Wednesday verdicts here.

1. Mark Davidson, Right, Wrong, and Risky: A Dictionary of Today’s American English Usage (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006), 166.

Make your mission irresistible to donors. Schedule a 15-minute Change Chat today.