From proper punctuation and the decline of the subjunctive to correct etiquette in emails and text messaging, Rogers (known at the National Geographic as StyleMaven) raises questions and renders opinions on the English language.
The Whole Comprises the Parts
Posted Aug 21,2008

In today’s world of sound bites and text messaging and email, when grammar is barely taught in schools, I fear that precision and correctness in word usage is declining. At least that’s what I conclude from the frequency with which I correct intelligent writers on the misuse of words like comprise and including or hear a reporter on television use that when who is correct.

On the other hand, when I do see or hear such terms used correctly, the writer or speaker climbs in my estimation, and I briefly feel hope for the future. Then, usually, reality hits. I predict that eventually common misusage will override correctness and future style guides, perhaps within my own lifetime, will no longer distinguish between comprise and compose.

Here, for those who still care about such distinctions, are guidelines from the National Geographic Style Manual on the proper use of those words: 

            The whole comprises its parts; the parts compose
            the whole.

            Do not write comprised of: The group comprised
            four men, not the group was comprised
            of four men.

            Four men composed the group or the
            group was composed of four men, not four men
            comprised the group.

And here are some recent examples:

•    “Ethnic and racial minorities will comprise a majority of the nation’s population.” (I spotted this sentence in the August 14 New York Times and in my opinion it does not fit the definition of “the whole comprises the parts.” To be correct, the sentence should read, “A majority of the nation’s population will comprise ethnic and racial minorities.” Not very mellifluous to the ear, is it? No wonder few know how to use comprise correctly.)

•    “The new force comprises 70 percent of all the matter and energy in the universe.” (National Geographic, November 2007)

•    “Yellowstone National Park comprises 3,472 square miles of forest and grasslands and waters.” (National Geographic, October 2006)

•    “Today the ‘downtown’ is comprised of a few houses and two small general stores.” (This comes from an early draft. The final wording in the National Geographic, January 2005, does not even use comprise.)   

How many of you readers have rules for including and are you careful with who and that?

Posted by Lesley Rogers | Comments (1)
Filed Under: Word Usage


John Blaser
Aug 21, 2008 4PM #

Please use your next article to correct the most embarrassing and widespread mistake I know: "could care less." I couldn't care more a about how wrong it is. Yikes!

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