Thursday, August 2, 2007

Often Confused: compose and comprise

I have often caught people trying to use comprise as a synonym for compose. The two words have different meanings. WRONG: A regular Happy Meal is comprised of a cheeseburger, small fries, a toy, and adult diabetes. I don't know why people do this; maybe they just think that "comprise" sounds more intelligent? To comprise means "to be made up of." The whole comprises the parts, not the other way around. An orchestra comprises one conductor, approximately 65 musicians, and some percussionists. The index comprised a full alphabetical reference until Doug tore out the Cs. Unlike compose, comprise never needs the helping verb to be. You can often substitue one verb for the other, but it isn't just a matter of switching out a single word; you have to switch a single, standalone verb and a phrasal verb: My list of enemies comprises wrongdoers, ne'er-do-wells, scallywags, and accordion players. My list of enemies is composed of wrongdoers, ne'er-do-wells, scallywags, and accordion players.