Don’t Monkey with Grammar: Comprise vs Compose

by Davina on January 3, 2013

The whole comprises the parts

The difference between comprise and compose

To help you understand when to use comprise and compose correctly in a sentence, let’s first look at their definitions.

To comprise means “to contain, to be made up of, to consist of or to include.” In essence, you would say that the whole comprises the parts.

To compose means “to make up or to constitute.” In this case, the parts compose the whole.

Comprise versus compose in a sentence

To determine when you should use comprise or compose, consider each of the following two options:

1. If the whole item is mentioned first, comprise is the correct word to use.

Example: The circle comprises eight monkeys OR The circle includes eight monkeys.

You would not write Eight monkeys comprise the circle because in order to use comprise the whole item must be mentioned first.

2. If the items that denote the whole are mentioned first, compose is the correct word to use because together, the items are composing or making up the whole.

Example: Eight monkeys compose the circle.

You would not write The circle is composed of eight monkeys because in order to use compose, the parts must be mentioned first.

You might be tempted to write The circle is comprised of eight monkeys. This is incorrect because comprised does not require the use of “is” or “of”; it stands alone. Since comprised also means “to contain”, it does not make sense to write is contained of.*

*According to the American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style, this usage is becoming more widely accepted. In 2005, 65% of those surveyed approved of writing is comprised of.

Tips to help you remember

Despite the increasing trend of acceptance for the use of is comprised of, if you’re ever in doubt, write your sentence according to the traditional rules.

1. The whole comprises the parts.

2. The parts compose the whole.

Here is another suggestion for remembering the difference:

1. CompriseThe whole rises first to appear before the parts.

2. Compose: The parts pose first to make up the whole.

If you have any other suggestions to help remember when to use comprise or compose in a sentence, please share in the comment section. The key is to find something that is easy for you to understand.

Image credit: Many thanks to Tina for giving permission to use this image.

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patricia January 4, 2013 at 6:56 pm

Wow, I think I have used comprise incorrectly in the past as I never thought it needed to be the whole before the parts. I would have said just that – the eight monkeys comprise the circle. That even sounds correct to me so I am sure I have used it incorrectly.

I tortured my mother by using me and I incorrectly, now with her passing my whole family is working on getting me to stop this error – with 8 people in the house over the holiday it was quite overwhelming, but I think 50 years of incorrect has not changed – I do not hear it at all, not even after I have said it. Ah me!

Nice to find this here as I get caught up – you do such good work.
patricia´s last blog post ..Making Change: An Often Overlooked Step

Hilary January 6, 2013 at 3:55 am

Hi Davina .. another helpful guide. I must say I was somewhat befuddled by your need to chose these two words … but reading Patricia’s comment – obviously a necessary and essential reminder.

I find myself typing the most odd things – but usually (not always!) correct them before they get to print …

Thankfully the monkey is not on my back for this one …

Hope you had a lovely Christmas and New Year and feel refreshed for 2013 – cheers Hilary
Hilary´s last blog post ..Desiderata …

Davina January 7, 2013 at 3:34 pm

You’re welcome, Patricia. Thanks.

You’re not the only one! Using comprise in the manner you have used it appeals to me also. Lol, old habits are hard to break with regards to the I versus me syndrome. Ah well, at least you know your family is listening to you :-)

Hehehe, Hilary.

Love that phrase “monkey is not on my back.” I used to make this error, not even realizing it, until a colleague pointed it out to me. Perhaps over the years, as language evolves, this will no longer be an issue. More folk are coming to accept it.

It is interesting how we come out with the strangest things while writing/typing… even speaking. New words are created all time. And sometimes the turn of a phrase will put a smile on your face, as you have done for me with your comment.

Linda January 14, 2013 at 6:07 pm

Thanks for the eye opener. Those are two words I never thought to cause trouble.

Davina January 17, 2013 at 9:06 pm

You’re welcome, Linda!

There seems to be no end to the learning :)

Chris Edgar January 19, 2013 at 9:56 am

Yeah, the battle regarding the proper usage of “comprise” seems to be a losing one in my experience — I used to correct people about that when I had a lot of collaborators (for better or worse) on my legal wordsmithing, and I was consistently outvoted. But thanks for keeping the faith!
Chris Edgar´s last blog post ..Choose My Next Musical

Davina January 26, 2013 at 11:01 am

You’re welcome, Chris. Interesting that you were outvoted among legal wordsmiths!

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