Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor

Episode 27: An Interesting Compromise

Like music, language is a living organism that's always growing, evolving and changing.

To that point, I recently a newspaper article that contained this sentence:
The research group is comprised of doctors.
It's a fine sentence, but there was a time not long ago when the writer may have been criticized for using comprised in this way. It used to be that comprise meant only "to include, contain or consist of." (Those who studied French will recognize the not-coincidental resemblance in spelling and meaning of comprise to compris.)

Meanwhile, the word compose means "to make up." So to use the example above, the writer at one time may have been asked to rewrite his sentence as,
The research group comprises doctors.

or

The research group is composed of doctors.
Evidently that's not the case nowadays. Research showed that comprise can also mean "to make up."

Like a Richard Leakey of language, I tried to trace the origins of this evolution. In a Gregg Reference Manual printed in 1994, I found the editors unbending about the transposition of comprise and compose. They made it clear the words couldn't be switched.

Fast-forward to an Oxford Dictionary of Current English published in 1998, and "to make up" is listed as a third definition for comprise, but it is followed by a usage note that gently warns writers, "This use of comprise is considered incorrect and compose is generally preferred."

Finally, the 2001 imprint of the same dictionary listed "to make up" as a definition of comprise—and the old caveat was nowhere to be found.

If a word gets used by many people in a certain way—even if it veers from the original meaning—it eventually becomes accepted. It's sort of the old tug-of-war between prescriptivism and descriptivism.

To understand that distinction better, we spoke with to David McKoskey, a PhD student in computational linguistics at the University of Minnesota. (Listen to the podcast to hear the interview.) As Financial Times columnist Stefan Stern said to Marketplace Morning Report's Scott Jagow in March of 2007, "...dictionaries, they describe the language. They don't prescribe what's being spoken."

Thus it appears the reins have loosened on a couple of useful words: compose and comprise. That said, I don't think we'll ever start referring to Beethoven as a "compriser."

Sources: Gregg Reference Manual by William A. Sabin; Oxford Dictionary of Current English.

Music from this Episode: "So It Goes" by The Broken West; Pulcinella by Igor Stravinsky; "Decomposing Tree" by Galaxie 500.

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