“Comprised of” is obviously wrong. The lone warrior who cares enough to try to rid Wikipedia of this tiresome aberration merits the thanks of all those who love the English language. Those who don’t will of course dismiss the whole thing as pedantry – but take no notice of them. They are like a tone-deaf person, such as me, dismissing opera as nonsense. It sounds like nonsense to me, but that is because I just don’t get it.
Thus it is when those with a tin ear for the beauty of language offer the opinion that “comprised of” does not matter, because “the meaning is clear”. There is more to language than mere encoded information; one of the things we should care about is the ancestry of words.
“Comprise” is a French word that entered the English language in the 17th century. The root meaning is “take together”. It follows that the whole comprises the parts, not the parts the whole. For instance, a pancake batter comprises – takes together – eggs, flour, milk and salt: those ingredients do not “comprise” the batter. So, the batter is not “comprised of” them.
The people who write “comprised of” are confusing “comprise” with “compose”. That is another French word; it arrived in English in the late 15th century, and its root meaning is “put together”. The batter is indeed composed of the ingredients.
One further point to note is that “comprise” should only be used of all the parts taken together. Thus the batter may be said to include, say, eggs and milk, or flour and salt; but it comprises all four ingredients, not any one, two or three. If you use “comprise” you must list the lot.
Guy Keleny’s Errors & Omissions column appears every Saturday in ‘The Independent’
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