I changed another comprised of to composed of in an editing assignment yesterday, not because the word doesn’t have a well-established second meaning, but because it’s one of those things sticklers love to stickle.
Copyeditors know that the whole comprises the parts, that comprises means is composed of. Comprised of is considered poor usage. So is saying parts comprise the whole, which is a common usage that could cause confusion.
The American Heritage Dictionary reports increasing acceptance of the passive, as in the sample sentence, “The Union is comprised of 50 states.” According to the usage note:
Our surveys show that opposition to this usage has abated but has not disappeared. In the 1960s, 53 percent of the Usage Panel found this usage unacceptable; by 1996, the proportion objecting had declined to 35 percent; and by 2011, it had fallen a bit more, to 32 percent.
The New Oxford American Dictionary’s usage note calls the passive comprised of “part of standard English”:
Comprise primarily means consist of as in the country comprises twenty states. It can also mean constitute or make up a whole, as in this single breed comprises 50 per cent of the Swiss cattle population. When this sense is used in the passive (as in the country is comprised of twenty states), it is more or less synonymous with the first sense (the country comprises twenty states). This usage is part of standard English, but the construction comprise of, as in the property comprises of bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen, is regarded as incorrect.
Bryan A. Garner puts comprised of at Stage 4 in his five-point Language Change Index, indicating broad acceptance except among persnickety copyeditors and English purists. This would include Bryan A. Garner, who says in Garner’s Modern American Usage: “The phrase is comprised of is increasingly common but has always been considered poor usage. Replace it with some other, more accurate phrase.”
By “always,” Garner means for the past century or so, once someone took notice.
The Oxford English Dictionary traces comprise in English to 1423 when it meant to lay hold on, take, catch, seize. It had many obsolete uses during it’s early life related to understanding (it is etymologically tied to comprehend), classifying, bringing together, enclosing or combinations of those concepts. It has been used as we use it today—to contain the parts—since the late 15th century. The compose sense, including the passive comprised of, doesn’t arrive until the late 18th century.
I’ll continue to change it for the sticklers if not for the general reader, reserving comprise for active voice, as the AP Stylebook recommends:
Comprise means to contain, to include all or embrace. It is best used only in the active voice, followed by a direct object: The United States comprises 50 states. The jury comprises five men and seven women. The zoo comprises many animals.
Failing to heed that advice, according the Guardian and Observer Style Guide, is to invite “people who care about such things to give you a look composed of, consisting of and comprising mingled pity and contempt.”