COMPRISE and COMPOSE, including a glance at CONSIST and, oddly enough, a cookie recipe


Why do so many people have so much trouble with the distinction between COMPRISE and COMPOSE? I guess it’s partly because the words look alike and do have similar, though complementary, meanings. Let’s try to sort this out once and for all.

To begin with, we will not be talking about COMPOSE in either of the following senses:

 

1. Mozart composed a violin sonata before he was toilet-trained.

2. Though violently aroused by her glimpse of Ludwig’s burnished wingtips,1 Mildred managed to compose herself sufficiently to answer his question.

 

The meaning of COMPOSE that we are concerned with is “make up” in the following sense:

 

3. A mere five ingredients compose the cookie dough.

 

I’m sure you will agree, however, that this is not a natural-sounding sentence, so let’s fix it:

 

4. The cookie dough is composed of a mere five ingredients.

 

This sounds more natural and is probably the source of part of the problem: we have put COMPOSE into the passive voice.2 Is there a way to say the same thing in a natural-sounding active voice? Yes, but not with COMPOSE:

 

5. The cookie dough consists of a mere five ingredients.

 

So now we know that COMPOSE (in the sense we are examining) in the passive voice means roughly the same as CONSIST OF. But most people understand this meaning of COMPOSE perfectly well and use it correctly—when they use it. The difficulties arise when they try to use COMPRISE instead, which they might possibly want to do because COMPRISE sounds like a fancier word and they desire to impress.

The problem is that COMPOSE and COMPRISE are not synonyms. They do not mean the same thing and they can’t be used interchangeably. Let’s try to come up with some illustrations of the correct use of COMPRISE:

 

6. The United States comprises fifty states.

7. The complex comprises an office building, two apartment buildings, a church, several shops, and a parking lot.

8. The cookie dough comprises a mere five ingredients.

 

Are we getting the idea? The rough-and-ready synonym for COMPRISE would be “take in.” If you can substitute “take in” for COMPRISE, it has been used correctly.

The problem, which you have of course immediately spotted, is that you can use CONSIST OF instead of COMPRISE in the sentences above. So if COMPRISE means the same as CONSIST OF, and COMPOSE means the same as CONSIST OF—no, wait! COMPOSE does not mean the same as CONSIST OF, except when COMPOSE is in the passive voice. So BE COMPOSED OF means the same as CONSIST OF.

So therefore, if COMPRISE means the same as CONSIST OF, and BE COMPOSED OF means the same as CONSIST OF, COMPRISE should mean the same as BE COMPOSED OF. And it does!

Note, however, that COMPRISE is in the active and IS COMPOSED OF is in the passive. COMPRISE and COMPOSE, both in the active voice, do not mean the same thing. As stated above, they are not synonyms and can’t be used interchangeably.

In the active voice, remember, COMPOSE means “make up.” (So BE COMPOSED OF means “be made up of.”) And COMPRISE means “take in” or “be made up of.”

So COMPRISE means the same as BE COMPOSED OF: that is, COMPRISE in the active voice means the same as COMPOSE in the passive voice.

You might want to read that over.

So if COMPRISE means “take in” or BE COMPOSED OF, COMPRISE cannot have a passive voice—you can’t say “be taken in of.” So both the following sentences are wrong, in the same way and for the same reason:

 

* 9. The cookie dough is taken in of a mere five ingredients.3

* 10. The cookie dough is comprised of a mere five ingredients.3

 

So, to get to the main point of this exercise, the phrase *BE COMPRISED OF is ungrammatical and incorrect and wrong. It does not mean the same as BE COMPOSED OF; it does not mean anything at all. It’s nonsense. COMPRISE can’t be used in the passive.

I realize that this may seem, first of all, very confusing, and second, who cares? Some people do care, however, and someday one of those people may be in a position to do you some good, or some harm. And you never know when you might run into one. So here are the rough-and-ready rules:

 

1. Never use BE COMPRISED OF.

2. Use BE COMPOSED OF, CONSIST OF, and COMPRISE (note: active voice!) interchangeably.

 

These two rules are simple and easy to understand, but if you’d rather not bother learning them, don’t. Just don’t use COMPRISE at all. Simply use CONSIST OF or BE COMPOSED OF instead.4


 

 

1 No, sorry; it just means a kind of shoe.

 

2 Do we need an essay on the difference between active and passive? Surely not.

 

3 In linguistics, an asterisk in front of an example means that the example is ungrammatical, or, in other words, wrong.

 

4 Oh, right—the cookie recipe:

 

CHOCOLATE CHRISTMAS COOKIES (also good at other times of year)

 

½ cup sugar

¾ cup butter, softened

1 egg yolk

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour

¼ cup unsweetened cocoa powder (Dutch cocoa powder if possible)

 

Preheat oven to 375o. Beat sugar, butter, and egg yolk at medium speed for a couple of minutes, until light and fluffy. Gradually add flour and cocoa powder so they are mixed in thoroughly. [It will not hurt the cookies at all if you also mix in a teaspoon of vanilla extract or a tablespoon of Kaluah or Tia Maria at this point, although technically this constitutes a sixth ingredient.]

Now comes the fun part. Shape tablespoons of dough into 1-inch balls, or 2-inch logs, or flattened balls, or balls with indentations—or use a cookie press. Place the shapes you fancy 1 inch apart on a baking sheet and bake 7 to 9 minutes or until set.

While still hot, decorate with chocolate chips or almond bark, which will melt (stick the cookies back in the oven for a minute).

And/or, when cool, decorate with nuts, candied fruit, crushed candy canes, maraschino cherries, etc.

This makes about three dozen.

 

 

I have another cookie recipe that comprises a mere four ingredients; is anyone interested?