Comprise, compose or consist?

16 Mar

Comprise, compose and consist have come to my attention quite forcibly this week, as I keep coming across examples of them being used incorrectly. Or, rather, comprise being used incorrectly. “Comprise of” and, in the past tense, “comprised of” seem to be getting more and more common, and the three words do have a similar meaning, in that they are all about larger things being made up of smaller things. But the way they are used, and the constructions that are built around them, are different and do need care. There is also a subtle shift in emphasis from the parts to the whole, which I’ll describe as I go through them.

The problem creeps in when they are not adequately differentiated in the writer’s mind, in which case the constructions leak across from one to another, causing (gasp!) incorrect sentence structures. And yes, there is a school of thought that says “if you can understand it, it doesn’t matter if it’s a bit incorrect or clumsy”, but I don’t think there’s any need to be incorrect and clumsy if you don’t have to be. There, I’ve said it. Anyway, here goes!

To comprise is to consist of (yes, I know), be made up of: “the country comprises four regions”. But not (please!) “the country comprises of four regions”. If you are desperate to use “of”, then you can turn the verb around and make the country the subject, so: “the country is comprised of four regions”. But I’ll repeat again, it’s not comprises of, and really I don’t much like is comprised of much, either, when it comes down to it, and if you write that in something I’m editing, I’m likely to suggest changing it!

The emphasis here is very much on the smaller constituent parts. We’re talking about what the larger thing is made up of, and they are the important things, rather than the whole.

Note that the large thing comprises the small things. The small things don’t really comprise the big one, or at least we don’t write it that way round.

To consist of means to be made up of – “the country consists of four regions”.  You can use that “of” as much as you like with consist! The emphasis here is on the parts that make up the whole, but also on the fact that they do make up a whole, so there’s an equal balance of importance.

And a little bonus: to consist in means to have as an essential feature – “Bob and Tom look very similar: their difference consists in the way they talk”.

If you can replace “consists” with “lies”, then use in. If you can replace “consists” with “is made up” then use of.

To be composed of, again, means to be made up of, although the emphasis shifts here subtly to the whole: the parts compose the whole, and the whole is what is important. “The work is composed of four movements”.

You can find more troublesome pairs here and the index to them all so far is here.


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5 responses to “Comprise, compose or consist?

  1. Teju

    March 8, 2016 at 11:21 am

    So what finally I infer from this is that the three are same. I’ve another doubt,could you tell me when to use simple past and past perfect?? Like what is the difference between the following sentences-
    I ate my breakfast.
    I had eaten my breakfast.
    It would be kind of you, if you clarify this doubt of mine.


    • Liz Dexter

      March 9, 2016 at 7:08 pm

      Well, no, they’re not completely the same and they are used in different ways. To answer your question, past perfect would be used if you were engaged in a narrative, you couldn’t use it standing alone, while you could use the simple past on its own. Apart from that, it’s a matter of style, and of keeping it consistent once you’ve chosen one. Those are the basics, this isn’t really the place to get into the minutiae of the subject.


  2. Jason

    February 14, 2017 at 2:20 am

    Can you use either of these words where you are only referring to a portion of the set of things up with which the container is made? (lol)

    To use your example, where a country has more than four regions can you say the “the country [comprises/consists of] four densely populated regions”, or would you be required to say “the country [comprises/consists of] four main regions and a number of other less populated regions”. Forgive the terrible example. Is there a word you could use instead (other than ‘includes’, which is overused in my line of work)?


    • Liz Dexter

      February 14, 2017 at 5:33 am

      Excellent question, thank you. Comprises / consists of needs to be about everything that fills the container. The only way around your example would be the slightly clumsy “the country consists of, among others, four densely populated regions”.



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