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. Comprise: The 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.