Are You Composed? Compose vs Comprise

Are You Composed? Compose vs Comprise

“Hmmm….Should I use compose or comprise? What is the difference?”

Yes, these two words are confusing indeed. They mean the same thing, but are used differently. Much of the time it is easier to just give up and use a substitute word or phrase.

Comprise means “is made up of.” So the whole comprises the parts. In other words, when using comprise, the whole will come before the parts:The United State comprises fifty states. (The United States is made up of fifty states.)
The class comprises second, third, and fourth grade students.
The penguin family in the photo comprises four members.

Compose means “to make up.” The parts compose the whole. So here, the parts will come before the whole:

Fifty states compose the United States.
Second, third, and fourth graders compose the music class.
Four penguins compose the family seen in the above portrait.
Now, we can try to”flip” the words around into a sort of a passive-sounding usage is composed of, which can be used in place of comprise. Here, the whole is composed of the parts:
The United States is composed of fifty states. (comprises fifty states)
The music class is composed of second, third, and fourth graders. (comprises second, third, and fourth graders)
The penguin family is composed of mother, father, and two children. (comprises a mother, a father, and two children)
Don’t worry about flipping comprise around because you can’t. “Is comprised of” is not a thing, so don’t bother with it.

Here are the three correct ways to say it:

The department comprises a manager, an assistant manager, and four salespeople.
The department is composed of a manager, an assistant manager, and four salespeople.
A manager, an assistant manager, and four salespeople compose the department.
Of course you can avoid it: The department is made up of a manager, an assistant  manager, and four salespeople.
So get “is comprised of” out of your lexicon. It isn’t correct.

Tips to remember which is which:

Comprise contains eight letters; compose contains seven letters. Comprise is longer.
When comprise is used, the whole (larger) comes before the parts.
Compose is shorter; when it is used the parts ( smaller) come before the whole.
The above tips are when the verb is used in the active voice.
The more passive-sounding phrase “is composed of” is used instead of comprises and means” is made up of.”
The other passive-sounding phrase, “is comprised of” is not used.

Arlene Miller