Comprising an abomination

By April 19, 2017English usage

Some years ago I wrote a book review for a newsletter, which I commenced with ‘This book comprises…..” The editor of the newsletter (an American) changed that to “This book is comprised of….”. I spat the dummy. Anybody who doesn’t understand how to use the verb ‘comprise’, should not be an editor. Indeed, they should perhaps undertake remedial English classes.

It is very easy to understand. ‘Comprise’ is a verb which means ‘consist of’, ‘is made up of’. It is used in much the same way as ‘include’. However ‘comprise’ differs in that it means that it consists of something in its entirety. For instance, when you say that the English alphabet comprises 26 letters, this means that 26 letters make up the whole of the English alphabet. If you said that “the English alphabet comprises 5 vowels” that would be incorrect, because there are another 21 letters (the consonants) which also are part of the English alphabet.

‘Include’ is a verb which means ‘makes part of a whole’ So, if you stated that the English alphabet includes 26 letters, that would be incorrect, as it implies that there are some other letters in the English alphabet in addition to those 26. However, if you stated that the English alphabet includes 5 vowels, this would be correct, because those vowels form part of it, but not all of it.

The phrase ‘is comprised of’ is an abomination in the same way as ‘is included of’ is appalling. Nobody with English as their native language would use the latter, nor should they use the former. ‘Comprise’ is used in much the same way as ‘Include’, except that is covers all, not just some of the content of a particular item. I reiterate:

  1. The English alphabet includes 5 vowels
  2. The English alphabet comprises 26 letters, including 5 vowels
  3. Comprising 26 letters, the English alphabet has fewer letters than the Russian alphabet, which has 33.

4 Comments

  • Jim Jago says:

    Dear Admin,
    The incorrect use of comprise used to irritate me when marking student reports, along with incorrect spelling and grammar, the use of capitals for nouns and the incorrect use of the possessive apostrophe. Some of the problems came from poor teaching at school, e.g., several students quite seriously told me that they had never heard of the need for the verb to agree with the subject or object. Indeed some of them did not understand the words subject and object. To their credit some of these students would sort things out pretty quickly. On the other hand the best set of essays I ever marked was from a group of third year engineers who traditionally are meant to have poor language skills.

    I am not sure if you have come across it, but Peter Purcell, the editor of the PESA News (and other petroleum related publications) used to produce a marvellous series of one page essays on the last page of the bi-monthly PESA News. I am not sure if this is still done. For example, in the January-February 1993 issue the title of the essay was “Compose me no comprises”. It dealt in detail on the correct use of “comprise”. Another article was on the use of the hyphen and I seem to recall one on the use of “ae” in words such as Palaeozoic. It was always an interesting read

  • Arthur Baker says:

    “The English alphabet includes 5 vowels”.

    This doesn’t come close to telling the full story. Some other letters in English’s alphabet are often used to denote, or partially denote, phonemes which are unequivocally vowels or diphthongs. Some examples:

    * y as in happy, say, boy, try and many others;
    * w as in curlew, thaw, how, hew and many others;
    * h as in blah blah, hoo-hah and many others;
    * r as in bar, car, jar, mar, par, tar, war and many others;

    This question arises because English’s orthography, which unfortunately only comprises 26 letters, is not, and can never be, a one-to-one match with its phoneme set. In most Australian and British versions of the language, the phoneme set comprises around 44 sounds (usually 24 consonants, including the four approximants, or semi-vowels l, r, w and y, 12 pure vowels, and 8 diphthongs).

    Any account of English’s vowel-count or consonant-count which fails to mention the disjunct between its orthography and its phonemic range is bound to be incomplete and therefore misleading.

    • admin says:

      Arthur,

      That reference to the number of vowels had nothing to do with a description of English beyond its utility at demonstrating the usage of the word ‘comprise’. As you note, I am no linguist and even the terminology you use is something with which I am in part unfamiliar. Are there any languages that actually have a one-to-one letter:phoneme ratio?

  • Arthur Baker says:

    “That reference to the number of vowels had nothing to do with a description of English beyond its utility at demonstrating the usage of the word ‘comprise”.

    Yep. I understand your intention as regards the word “comprise”. Your thesis as regards the misuse of the word “comprise” is fine, but your use of the “5 vowels” myth doesn’t come close to supporting your thesis.

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