Word Confusion: Compose versus Comprise

Posted January 22, 2013 by Kathy Davie in Author Resources, Editing, Self-Editing, Word Confusions, Writing

Revised as of 22 August 2017

Admittedly, comprise is not used often. However, I do frequently find authors using compose when comprise would be the appropriate choice.

The distinction is in the parts. Compose uses parts to make a whole while comprise is a whole that includes parts.

Word Confusions…

…started as my way of dealing with a professional frustration with properly spelled words that were out of context in manuscripts I was editing as well as books I was reviewing. It evolved into a sharing of information with y’all. I’m hoping you’ll share with us words that have been a bête noir for you from either end. Consider sharing this Word Confusion with friends by tweeting it

Compose Comprise
Credit to: Apple Dictionary.com

“Composing Music by Hand” is courtesy of Art of Composing

“A Smiley Face of People” courtesy of CRI English.com

This “panoramic view of a smiling face comprises 768 participants at a square in the Croatian capital, Zagreb,
May 6, 2011″.

Part of Grammar:
Verb, intransitive & transitive

Third person present verb: composes
Past tense or past participle: composed
Gerund or present participle: composing

Verb, intransitive & transitive

Third person present verb: comprises
Past tense or past participle: comprised
Gerund or present participle: comprising

Verb, intransitive:
To engage in composition, especially musical composition
To enter into composition

  • Fall into an arrangement

Verb, transitive:
Write or create a work of art, especially music or poetry

  • Write or phrase a letter or piece of writing with care and thought
  • Form a whole by ordering or arranging the parts, especially in an artistic way
  • Order or arrange parts to form a whole, especially in an artistic way

Made up of or constitute (of elements)

  • Be a specified number or amount of a whole

Calm or settle yourself, your features, your thoughts

  • [Archaic] Settle a dispute

Prepare a text for printing by manually, mechanically, or electronically setting up the letters and other characters in the order to be printed

  • Setting up the letters and characters to print something
Comprise of is only used in the passive sense with some form of to be

To include or contain

To form or constitute

Consist of

To be composed of

Be made up of

Verb, intransitive:
The first sentence is so hard to compose.

I grant you, it is a scene that composes well.

Verb, transitive:
The system is composed of a group of machines.

Beethoven composed music.

Water is composed of two molecules of hydrogen and one of oxygen.

Compose yourself before he sees how angry you are!

Technically, you could consider yourself composing when you have the computer send a file to the printer.

The U.S. comprises 50 states.

Documents are comprised of words, although they are composed by people. Who knew??

The Soviet Union comprised several socialist republics.

The advisory board comprises six members.

Seminars and lectures comprised the day’s activities.

Adjective: composable, composed, uncomposable
Adverb: composedly
Noun: composer
Adjective: comprisable
Noun: comprisal
History of the Word:
Late Middle English — in the general sense of put together, construct — from the Old French composer from the Latin componere, but influenced by the Latin compositus, which means composed and the Old French poser meaning to place. Late Middle English from the French comprised and the feminine past participle of comprendre from the Old French comprehender.

C’mon, get it out of your system, bitch, whine, moan…which words are your pet peeves? Also, please note that I try to be as accurate as I can, but mistakes happen or I miss something. Email me if you find errors, so I can fix them…and we’ll all benefit!

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Pinterest Photo Credits:

Baked Stargazy Pie by Krista was uploaded by Diádoco is under the CC BY 2.0 license and Two Eggs is ZabMilenko’s own work under the CC BY 3.0 license; both are via Wikimedia Commons. “Nutritional Information: Sardines or Pilchards, Raw” is courtesy of FoodNutrition Table.com, and “Fundamentals: Standard Baking Flours” is courtesy of My Baking Addiction, via Pinterest.

4 responses to “Word Confusion: Compose versus Comprise

    • It was so perfect to help explain such a, well, nebulous concept. Thanks very much for creating it! I hope it helps bring traffic to your site.

  1. I think you have it wrong in your header image. Four countries don’t comprise the UK; the UK comprises four countries. Four countries _compose_ the UK.

    To be sure, substitute “is made up of” for the word comprise. Four countries aren’t made up of the UK; the UK is made up of four countries.

    In the same vein, documents are not “comprised of” words; they are composed of them, and they are composed by people :D. And loosely, documents might comprise words, though comprise seems more directed toward a set of distinct items, versus a list of non-distinct items in a given order (like words in a document).