Our Real Grammar series showed how the evidence of language in use often undermines or contradicts the made-up or outdated “rules” which some people insist on.
In this series on Real Vocabulary, with Scott Thornbury, we’re bringing you blog posts, videos and a quiz that give evidence-based answers to frequently asked questions about vocabulary.
In the fifth question in our Real Vocabulary quiz, we asked whether it was acceptable to use the verb comprise in the expression be comprised of. We looked at two sentences which convey the same meaning but using different constructions:
The development comprises 50 houses and 75 apartments.
The development is comprised of 50 houses and 75 apartments.
Our conclusion was that both constructions – active and passive – are equally acceptable. However, it’s fair to say that many people object to the be comprised of variation.
About a year ago, a contributor to Wikipedia named Bryan Henderson was in the news when he announced that he had devised a software routine – which he applied to the entire Wikipedia database – to find and remove 47,000 instances of the expression “be comprised of”. He was regarded by many as a hero. And he’s not alone: for the Chicago Manual of Style, be comprised of is “poor usage”, while Grammar Girl tells us that
Most grammar sources I checked agree that “is comprised of” is an incorrect phrase.
It’s easy to see why this view is so widespread: it feels counterintuitive to say that a verb can convey the same meaning whether used actively or in the passive. After all, if we substituted include here, we could say “the development includes 50 houses…”, but definitely not “The development is included of 50 houses”.
The reason for all this confusion is that the verb comprise has two distinct meanings. The earliest one is something like “to consist of or be formed of”, so we can say
The European Union consists of OR is formed of OR comprises 28 member states.
Here the subject of the verb (the European Union) is a single entity, which consists of several parts.
But comprise later acquired a second meaning, roughly equivalent to “to make up or constitute”. So in these examples from our corpus (which invoke the second meaning) the situation is reversed:
…the relevant bodies and individuals which comprise the University’s community…
The document has the full support of all of the professional groups which comprise the BSHG.
…the populists, libertarians and cultural right-wingers who comprise the ascendant wing of the party…
Here the subject of the verb is a number of entities which collectively form a single whole. And of course, when you passivize the second meaning, the resulting phrase (“is comprised of”) has the same meaning as the active form of the first meaning – as shown in the two sentences we started with.
All this flexibility is too much for Bryan Henderson, but every one of his arguments is elegantly demolished in an excellent article by David Shariatmadari – which nicely complements the case we’re making here.
It is reasonable to argue that the second meaning of comprise may sometimes lead to a lack of clarity (though language is full of ambiguities, and these are almost always resolved by the context). What is not reasonable is to conclude that the second meaning (which has been around since the 18th century, and is well attested in corpus data) is “wrong”. It isn’t.
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