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CULTURE WATCH : You Say Compose, I Say Comprise

September 27, 1993|THE HARTFORD COURANT

Here's what your parents never told you about the birds and the bees: Birds compose a flock, and a flock comprises birds. Bees compose hives; hives constitute an apiary, and an apiary comprises many hives.

These buggy distinctions may give you hives, but don't think you can get away with using comprised of in the passive voice. Deep-six the sentence "A hockey team is comprised of a half-dozen players." Instead, earn high fives for saying, "The Iroquois Confederacy was originally composed of five American Indian tribes."

When you say that a herd "comprises" 40 sheep, by the way, it's understood that you have described all components of the herd. But if you were to say the herd "includes" 40 sheep, this usually implies that there are other items in the herd, perhaps a goat or a wolf in sheep's clothing. If you want to make it clear that you're talking about sheep only, use comprise rather than include.

Some purists insist that include be used only when a partial list is provided, and never when all components are mentioned. Accordingly, they believe it's incorrect to say, "New York City includes five boroughs" because that's all the boroughs it comprises.

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