Stop Using "Comprised Of"(▼)(▲)
February 9, 2015
I came across this article last week, which describes one Wikipedia editor's quest to eliminate a single common grammatical error from the entire site. Being a writer myself, I was interested in what this error was so that I could avoid it in my own writing. Turns out, it's pretty simple: the phrase "comprised of" is a grammatical fallacy, in any and all situations. I was surprised by the finality of such a common phrase being completely wrong, so I read the article that Giraffedata (the editor in question's username on Wikipedia) had written about why the phrase is always improper. The article is pretty massive, over 6,000 words. You can read the whole thing here if you're interested, but his main argument is summed up in this fairly small first section:
Many people do not accept "comprised of" as a valid English phrase for any meaning. The argument goes that "to comprise" means to include, as in "The 9th district comprises all of Centerville and parts of Easton and Weston." Thus, "the 9th district is comprised of ..." is gibberish.
The phrase apparently originated as a confusion of "to comprise" and "to be composed of", which mean about the same thing, as in "the 9th district is composed of ..." There is a traditional saying to help people remember these two sound-alike words: "The whole comprises the parts; the parts compose the whole."
But "comprised of" is in common use and some people defend it as a fully valid additional definition of "to comprise". Even dictionaries acknowledge this usage, though they all tell you it's disputed and typically discourage writers from using it. See for example Wiktionary.
Here is my view of why "comprised of" is poor writing:
- It's completely unnecessary. There are many other ways to say what the writer means by "comprised of". It adds nothing to the language.
- It's illogical for a word to mean two opposite things.
- The etymology of the word does not support "comprised of". It comes from Latin words meaning to hold or grasp together. Other English words based on those same roots are "comprehensive" and "prehensile" (as in a monkey's prehensile tail: it can grab things). Comprise's French cousin also makes this clear.
- It's new. Many current Wikipedia readers learned to write at a time when no respectable dictionary endorsed "comprised of" in any way. It was barely ever used before 1970. Even now, style manuals frequently call out this particular usage as something not to do.
- It's imprecise. English has a variety of ways to say things the writer means by "comprised of". "Composed of", "consists of", and "comprises" are subtly different. In sentences I edit, it often takes careful thought to decide just which one of these things the article should say. Thus the sentence with "comprised of" isn't quite as expressive.
- Many writers use this phrase to aggrandize a sentence -- to intentionally make it longer and more sophisticated. In these, a simple "of", "is", or "have" often produces an easier-to-read sentence. (Example: "a team comprised of scientists" versus "a team of scientists").