The word "comprise" deals with the relationship between a whole and its parts, but it is used commonly with two opposite meanings, "to consist of" and "to constitute," as shown in the following examples (along with a significant variant of each major sense):
- 1a. A standard deck comprises 52 cards. ("consists of," "is composed of")
- 1b. A standard deck comprises four aces. (variant — "includes")
- 2a. Fifty-two cards comprise a standard deck. ("constitute")
- 2b. A standard deck is comprised of 52 cards. (passive variant —"is constituted of," i.e. "consists of," "is composed of")
It is recommended that legislative counsel not use the verb "comprise."
Instead, for meaning 1a, "consist of" or "is composed of" is recommended; for meaning 1b., "include" is recommended.
For meaning 2a., "constitute" is recommended; for form 2b., which is meaning 2a. in the passive voice, "consist of" or "is composed of," is recommended as "is constituted of" does not appear in Acts or regulations.
It appears that the English language is changing with regard to the meaning of "comprise," with the once non-standard "constitute" meaning becoming more and more common. It is undesirable for a word to be used in legislation when there is a lack of consensus about its meaning, for the following reasons.
First, there is the possibility of ambiguity, particularly between the "consist of" and "include" meanings: the use of "comprise" to mean "include" in some cases may raise the question for other cases, at least theoretically, whether parts mentioned are an exhaustive listing or only an inexhaustive one.
Second, it goes against principles of readability to use a word that is used differently by different people.
Third, the use of the "constitute" meaning, while common both in Acts and regulations and in the language at large, might still be criticized by some readers as non-standard English. The "include" meaning might also be criticized by some.
Despite these criticisms, usage guides are not in fact uniform in their advice about how acceptable these forms are (see Sources at the end of this article).
If any generalizations may be drawn from the guides cited under Sources, they are that Canadian sources seem to be more favourable than British ones toward the "include" meaning, and that the Oxford dictionaries are more tolerant of the "constitute" meaning than the other sources are. Nonetheless, the lack of consensus among usage guides and dictionaries about what is acceptable is itself evidence that this word is in a state of flux.
It may be that "comprise" is displacing the active form of the verb "compose": although "compose" is very common in the passive voice ("a deck is composed of 52 cards"), and although "compose" is held up by the usage guides as the correct alternative to the "constitute" meaning of "comprise," it is quite rare to encounter it in the active voice ("52 cards compose a deck"), while this meaning of "comprise" is very common ("52 cards comprise a deck"). This is true not only in the language at large but in Acts and regulations as well - the passive "composed of" is used more than 250 times there but the active "compose" less than 20 (and that in very limited contexts), while "comprise" is used about 100 times with this meaning.
Sources (chronological order)
Fowler's Modern English Usage (2nd ed., 1965, UK)
Disapproves of using comprise to mean either constitute or include (pp. 102, 275).
The Longman Guide to English Usage (1988, UK)
Describes it as an "error" to use comprise to mean constitute, including is comprised of; disapproves of include meaning (pp. 157-8).
Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language (1993, US)
Defines comprise as
"1: to include…CONTAIN…5a: to consist of : be made up of…b: to make up : CONSTITUTE…"
The Gregg Reference Manual (1995, Canada)
Defines comprise as "to include, contain, consist of", and disapproves of the constitute meaning, including is comprised of (p. 258).
The Canadian Style (1997, Canada)
Disapproves of the constitute meaning, and tells the reader to avoid is comprised of. Its position on include is a bit weaker than Fowler's or the Longman's, merely saying that include implies part of a whole, while comprise implies all of the whole (our emphasis) (pp. 228, 234).
The Canadian Oxford Dictionary (1998, Canada)
Defines comprise as
"1 include… 2 consist of, be composed of… 3 make up, compose [i.e. constitute]…"It notes that instances of the constitute meaning, including is comprised of,
"have traditionally been criticized and are still strongly opposed by some…The disputed uses are very common, however, and considered unobjectionable by many."
Uses comprise both ways in other definitions (e.g. consist of: "New England: and area…of the US, comprising [six states]"; constitute "six counties: the Ulster counties…which since 1920 have comprised the province of Northern Ireland").
The New Fowler's Modern English Usage (1998, UK)
Disapproves of the include meaning. Lists examples of constitute meaning under "disputed or erroneous uses," but says
"It cannot be denied, however, that the sheer frequency of this construction seems likely to take it out of the disputed area before long";and for is comprised of in particular,
"Opposition to [it] is also weakening"(p. 168). Comprise
"seems to be prevailing in its battle with compose"(p. 387).
The New Oxford Dictionary of English (1998, UK)
Gives "consist of; be made up of" as the core sense of comprise, but also gives "make up; constitute" as a subsense, and states that instances of is comprised of "are common and are fast becoming part of standard English." Its position on include is very similar to that of The Canadian Style.
Uses comprise both ways in other definitions (e.g. consist of: "Yugoslavia: …comprised Serbia, Montenegro, and [other territories]"; constitute: "Serbia: …Serbia and Montenegro now comprise Yugoslavia").
The Gage Canadian Dictionary (2000, Canada)
Disapproves of the constitute meaning and calls is comprised of "incorrect". Its definition of comprise includes include and vice-versa, the definition of include being followed by a usage note that gives comprise as a synonym but explains the difference in "emphasis" of the two words as to whether parts mentioned are listed completely or incompletely.
Despite disapproving of the constitute meaning, uses comprise both ways in other definitions (e.g. consist of: "snapping turtle: any of a family (Chelydridae, comprising two species) of large…turtles…"; constitute: "beaver: either of two species comprising a family (Castoridae) of large rodents…").
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