The verb comprise resembles the verb compose, and writers sometimes confuse the two terms, but they actually mean different things and are used differently.
To comprise means “to include, contain, enclose, or take in” (Cook 172), as in the sentence, A sonnet comprises fourteen lines of verse.
To compose means “to form the substance of” or to “constitute” (“Compose”), as in the sentence, The volume is composed of many essays.
When in doubt about whether to use comprise or compose in a sentence, follow Claire Cook’s advice and substitute the verb include or one of its synonyms (e.g., contain, enclose, or take in): if the substitution fits, then you can use comprise; if it does not fit, then you can try compose (172).
Let’s use this rubric to assess the following sentence.
The crowd was comprised of friends and neighbors.
The verb include, or one of its synonyms, cannot replace comprise in the example sentence, so we know that comprise is the wrong verb. Instead the sentence should use compose or a similar verb:
The crowd was composed of [or made up of] friends and neighbors.
Here’s another example:
An orchestra comprises many different instruments.
The verb include could replace comprise in this sentence (An orchestra includes many different instruments), so we know that comprise is correct.
Cook, Claire Kehrwald. Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1985.
“Compose, Vb. 1b.” Merriam-Webster Unabridged, 2022, unabridged.merriam-webster.com/collegiate/compose.
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