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LexTips: Comprise or Compose?

Posted on: March 20, 2009

Comprise and compose are used to express the relationship of the whole and its parts. (If you have ever studied set theory in mathematics, you have learned about this relationship in other terms.)

Many people use these words as though they are  interchangeable, but they are not. Careful thinkers and writers distinguish between the two.

Think of comprise as meaning contains or includes. The whole contains, or includes, the parts — the whole comprises its parts. Comprise, then, indicates that the whole is larger than the parts and contains them.

Compose, on the other hand, means to constitute or make up. Thus, the parts constitute, or make up, the whole — the parts compose the whole. Compose expresses the idea that the parts are smaller than the whole and combine to create it.

When in doubt, try substituting one of the synonyms to double-check your selection of comprise or compose.

These two words can help us organize our world, because, to use them correctly, we must understand how things relate to one another. And that requires that we make distinctions and apply logic.

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