Compose or comprise?

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A reader asks “Can I use ‘comprise of’? Can you explain the difference between compose and comprise?”

These two verbs have similar meanings, so they are commonly confused.

Comprise means to make up something.

Compose to be made up of some contents.

Think of it this way: contents comprise the whole; the whole is composed of its contents. Or 9 men comprise a team; a team is composed of 9 men. When you start with the contents, use comprise. When you start with the whole, use composed of.

The Merriam Webster dictionary cites a use of comprise exactly like compose, although it warns you that you are likely to be criticized for this usage. The comments around this entry are interesting, pointing out that just because a dictionary cites how a word is used incorrectly doesn’t mean the dictionary endorses this incorrect usage. Nonetheless, many words do change over time due to usage, even meaning the opposite of their original meanings.

On the other hand, with this duo, compose has quite a number of meanings in addition to being made up of some contents. To compose also means to create a musical or written work. We write in composition books. But to be composed, means to be calm. So I can say “I am composed” when I mean I’m feeling peaceful. Or I can say “I am composed of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen.”