THE DEMISE OF COMPRISE
You may have read about UK software-engineer Bryan Henderson, who has made it his mission to remove all instances of ‘comprised of’ from Wikipedia (around 47,000 to date). This vigilante approach to editing has irritated many of the Wikipedia contributors whose work he has corrected—not to mention the numerous commentators accusing Henderson of pedantry: a more heinous crime, it would seem, than bad grammar. But as someone who detests the phrase ‘comprised of’, I can’t help but applaud his efforts.
The verb ‘comprise’ means, essentially, ‘to consist of’ or ‘to be made up of’; a whole comprises parts or components, not the other way around. Hence, ‘Australia comprises six states and various territories.’ It is wrong, or at least undesirable, to use this verb in its passive form, i.e. ‘Australia is comprised of six states and various territories.’ For a comprehensive explanation of why this is the case, see Henderson’s detailed essay defending his anti-‘comprised of’ stance.
Of course, the English language is always evolving, and many usages once considered incorrect are now the norm. Increasingly, people say or write ‘comprised of’ instead of ‘comprise/s’, and dictionaries are reflecting this development. According to the OED, both are equally acceptable. Other dictionaries, such as the Macquarie, distinguish between ‘traditional usage’ and employing ‘is/are comprised of’ as a synonym of ‘consist/s of’ or ‘is/are composed of’—warning, however, that, ‘This usage will attract criticism from many careful writers.’ The Collins dictionary remains refreshingly unequivocal: ‘The use of of after comprise should be avoided.’
The point is that, while ‘is/are comprised of’ may not be technically incorrect, it still looks and sounds ugly—a clumsy instance of passive voice, using three words where one would suffice. To quote William Strunk Jnr., advocate of clarity and precision in writing, and author of The Elements of Style:
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words…for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.
I don’t think there’s any doubt that if Strunk were around today, he would automatically favour the more economical ‘comprise/s’ over the graceless ‘comprised of’.
Even if sooner or later ‘comprised of’ is universally declared to be on equal footing with ‘comprise/s’, I will still experience what can only be described as grammar rage whenever I see this alternative usage appear in newspapers, magazines, websites, etc. To my mind, it’s up there with ‘very unique’ and ‘flaunting convention’.
So, although Henderson and the rest of us so-called pedants may be swimming against the tide, I think it behoves all good writers and editors to follow his example: expunge ‘comprised of’ wherever you see it, and replace it with an elegant ‘comprise/s’.
David Cohen is Full Proofreading Services’ guest blogger this month. As one of our contractors, David primarily edits ESL-student assignments. His main area of interest, as both an editor and a writer, is fiction; his own short stories and articles have appeared in The Big Issue, The Courier Mail, Meanjin, Seizure, and elsewhere. He lives in Brisbane, where he works at an academic library and tutors in various tertiary-level writing and editing subjects.