The Great Comprise Debate

by Mike Walsh

You may not have noticed, but a fierce and potentially bloody debate concerning usage of the word comprise is raging between the man on the street and those who determine the contents of our dictionaries. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, comprise means "to consist of, to include or contain." In other words, the whole chicken comprises the chicken parts. The legs, wings, thighs, breasts, and the gizzard bag (them being the parts) do not a chicken comprise. Comprise, however, is increasingly used in place of compose. Like this: an ounce of cocaine is comprised of 28 grams of cocaine, which are sold openly on the streets of North Philadelphia.

The unconventional usage of comprise has been fairly common since the 18th century. Men on the street like Jimmy Carter ("about eight percent of our military forces are comprised of women") and William Styron (". . .a misconception as to what comprises a literary generation") seem to prefer the looser definition, and yet Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary warns that if you use the unconventional form of comprise, "you may be subject to criticism for doing so." Strunk and White's famous Elements of Style upholds the status quo. "A zoo comprises mammals, reptiles, and birds. . . . But animals do not comprise a zoo. . . ." Strunk and White also tell us that comprise means, "literally, embrace," which clarifies the situation enormously. ("My darling, how long it has been since we last comprised. Let us comprise over and over until we have not the strength to comprise again.")

Unfortunately, we users of the English language don't have an officially appointed government agency to settle such matters like they do in communist countries. Instead, we have only our dictionaries, and the contents of each dictionary is usually determined by a Usage Panel (UP for short--pronounced "yoo-pee"). When a new word or usage becomes common, the UPs are, ironically, the last to know. (The UPs, it seems, do not often venture to street level.) Eventually, the UPs admit that the new word or usage has been assimilated, that they have failed to block its expiration from our vocal chords, and that they may as well put it in the dictionary before we change it yet again. But with virtually no exceptions, the UPs have demanded the traditional usage of comprise. They have chosen, perhaps unwisely, to ignore the people's wishes.

Undaunted, the man on the street continues to use comprise any which way he damn well pleases. For instance, when's the last time you heard a man on the street say, "Your wallet, kind sir, comprises many, many sections, including a section comprising many individual bills, which, incidentally, I am about to extract"? And each Usage Panel Member (UPM) is aware that the street, as it were, comprises a good many mean dudes, most of whom don't like nobody telling 'em how to say what they're talking 'bout. The man on the street is also notorious for taking the law into his own hands. So what we have here is a tense situation about to explode. The last thing we need is a group of sage-like UPM's getting their heads bashed in by a rampaging swarm of unruly, free-speaking men from the street.

Before we draw any hasty conclusions, let's remember that UPMs are usually upstanding members of things like English Departments, and they, like the rest of us, are subjected to regular doses of peer pressure. So if Professor So-'n'-So in 18th-Century English Literature happens to be on the first UP that allows a patois like the relaxed definition of comprise into a dictionary, he might not be invited to any more department pot-lucks, and the mean little clique over in Linguistics might cackle whenever he walks down the hall. Obviously, more is at stake than a few street corner conversations.

For now, the decision regarding this inflammatory expression is a personal one, but one that must be made. Take your time. Mull it over. Like so many things in life, you can't have your comprise both ways. Either you comprise, or you are comprised of. Until we have a government-sanctioned organization to determine standards and punish violators, this problem and many more like it will continue to stifle our conversations and our nation's social progress.

Bonus Mini Tirade!!!

I overhear quite a few of you undereducated, oversexed proles use the inaccurate phrase, "I could care less," increasingly often these days. With this loathsome phrase, you establish that you could care less, but you do not reject the possibility that you could also care more. So you really aren't saying much of anything at all (which probably suits many of you just fine), except perhaps that you don't know if you even have an opinion, that you have very little, if any, self-respect, that you are unstable and fearful, that you are a slob and, in short, a cloying weasel with no dignity whatsoever. What you mean to say is that you "couldn't care less." Now this is a phrase that states a position with conviction, because when you "couldn't care less," you really don't care at all. It says, yes, I know where I stand, and, furthermore, I know what I'm talking about. It says, I'm an individual of confidence, I'm a leader of men, yea, verily, life itself doth burst forth from me, my very existence affirms life, and rumors of my sexual prowess are not completely unfounded. So if you find that you "could care less," remember, ye heathen, speak not, for the rest of us really "couldn't care less."

Other pieces by Mike Walsh.

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