This post is one in a series about The Negative Canon.
Oxford Dictionaries Online (ODO) comments in a usage note that:
. . . comprise primarily means ‘consist of’ . . . It can also mean ‘constitute or make up a whole’.
The first definition means that we can say ‘Parliament comprises two chambers’ to mean that Parliament consists of two chambers. The second definition means that we can also say ‘Two chambers comprise Parliament’ to mean that two chambers constitute (or make up) Parliament.
The ODO note goes on to say:
When this sense [constitute] is used in the passive . . . it is more or less synonymous with the first sense.
That seems to mean that we can say ‘Parliament is comprised of two chambers.’ What we probably cannot say without censure is ‘Parliament comprises of two chambers’. The ODO claims that ‘the construction . . . is regarded as incorrect.’ The OED has just two citations using the construction. The British National Corpus has only 15 records for comprises of, among a total of 883 for comprises altogether, and the (larger) Corpus of Contemporary American English figures are 3 and 1205.
The OED itself supports the passive use with the definition ‘To be composed of, to consist of’, and gives the following supporting citations:
1874 Thirds, or Mixed, are comprised of either or both of the above.
1928 The voluntary boards of management, comprised . . . of very zealous and able laymen.
1964 Many of these words are comprised of monemes.
1970 Internally, the chloroplast is comprised of a system of flattened membrane sacs.
These examples are at odds with two of the usage guides I refer to in this series of posts. In ‘The Penguin Guide to English Usage’ Harry Blamires tells us that ‘One should not say “The members are comprised of” instead of comprise.’ In ‘Mind The Gaffe’ R L Trask writes that comprise ‘can never be passivized or followed by of’. It’s hard to see how these two writers, particularly a serious linguist like the second, could have denied the evidence for the passive use of comprise for more than 100 years.
Pam Peters, in ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’ draws the sensible conclusion that:
The verb comprise is clearly polysemous. Its particular meaning depends on whatever the writer puts as subject of the verb (the whole, or its parts). Readers take their cue from that. The second edition of the Oxford Dictionary (1989) recognizes all three uses of comprise [including the passive], as does Webster’s Third (1986). None of them can now be considered incorrect.
Here are examples of what seems permissible in the use of comprise, and two semantically similar verbs, compose and consist. An asterisk indicates that the usage is ungrammatical. A question mark suggests a doubtful usage.
Two chambers comprise Parliament.
*Parliament comprises of two chambers.
Parliament comprises two chambers.
Parliament is comprised of two chambers.
?Two chambers compose Parliament.
*Parliament composes of two chambers.
*Parliament composes two chambers.
Parliament is composed of two chambers.
*Two chambers consist Parliament.
Parliament consists of two chambers.
*Parliament consists two chambers.
*Parliament is consisted of two chambers.