What does the word “comprise” mean? How do you properly use the word? Some people don’t know the answer to both those questions and therefore hesitate to use the word “comprise” in their writing. Other writers know the answers or simply don’t care and decide to use the word “comprise” anyway. The following contents will help writers of all types in using the word “comprise”, such as proper use of the phrase “be comprised of.”

Comprise: Definition and Usage

In essence, the word “comprise” mean to contain something. Take the following example: “a navy comprises of battleships, aircraft carriers and destroyers.” This sentence is stating what type of ships a navy contains. However, by flipping the sentence the following way: “battleships, aircraft carriers and destroyers comprise a navy,” the word “comprise” is not being properly used. This is because whenever the word “comprise” is used, the parts must follow the whole. Here, the types of ships should follow the word “navy.”

One way to remember this rule is to memorize the following phrase: “Whole comprises the parts.” This phrase shows that the word “whole” comes before the word “parts.” See the following example for reinforcement:

ŸCorrect usage: The school comprises six departments.

ŸIncorrect usage: Six departments comprise the school.

In this example, the school is the whole and departments are the parts.

Comprised Of or Composed Of: Which One Is Right?


When the word “comprise” is used, it is often preceded with a conjugation of the verb “is” and followed by the word “of.” For example:

  • Ÿ The group is comprised of students from many different states.

  • Ÿ The United States is comprised of 50 states.

  • Ÿ The band is comprised of percussion, string and brass instruments.

Do these three examples sound right? You may ask "they do", especially when applying the rule we learned about how the “whole” precedes the “parts.” However, these three examples are wrong and “comprised of” in the three examples should be replaced with “comprises.” So the above three examples should be written as:

  • Ÿ The group comprises students from many different states.

  • Ÿ The United State comprises 50 states.

  • Ÿ The band comprises percussion, string and brass instruments.

But what if, instead of using the word “comprises,” we use the words “composed of?” To answer this question, we must first get to know what the word “compose” means. “Compose” means to “constitute or “make up” something. The word “compose” can be used if the whole is preceded by the parts. For example, “Battleships, aircraft carriers and destroyers compose a navy” is correct while “A navy composes battleships, aircraft carriers and destroyers” is incorrect. Let’s look at another example:

ŸCorrect usage: Six departments compose the school.

Incorrect usage: The school composes six departments.

The second sentence can be made correct by changing it to the passive voice: “The school is composed of six departments.”

Grammatically, we now understand that “comprised of” is wrong, but “composed of” is correct. However, modern English has moved toward accepting “comprised of.” In 1965, only 54% of the usage panel from The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style accepted the phrase “comprised of.” In 2005, that percentage rose to 65%. Therefore, even though “comprised of” is grammatically incorrect, it is possible that both “comprised of” and “composed of” can be used in sentences.


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