Compose or Comprise? A Dictionary Investigation

Oct 16, 2020 | Posted by Jennifer


Which words correctly fill in the blanks?

Fifty states ________________ the Union. (compose, comprise)

The Supreme Court typically ______________ nine justices. (composes, comprises)

Do you know the answers? If not, you’re in good company. Truth be told, I wasn’t completely certain myself. Recently I was preparing a lesson plan for one of my IEW classes and started to second guess my word choice in a sentence. Undaunted, I decided to consult my trusty dictionary that sits near my desk and was given to me many years ago when I was about to head off to college.

I flipped through the pages, arriving at the pertinent spot. Conveniently, the words were on facing pages, which makes sense given that they both begin with C-O-M-P. On the left page I read the listing for compose: (1) To make up the constituent parts of; (2) To make or create by putting together parts or elements. Simply stated, compose means to move from the parts in a system to the whole

Compositions are written by putting together various parts to form a whole. In writing, one could say that words become sentences, sentences form into paragraphs, and paragraphs fulfill specific functions (e.g., introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusion). A composer puts different instruments and melodies together to produce beautiful music. Many ingredients such as flour, brown sugar, vanilla, and eggs compose my favorite chocolate chip cookies. An artist or photographer brings together elements such as contrast between light and dark, color, background scenery, and foreground elements as he composes his piece. It’s the parts that come together to create the whole when one composes. Parts to whole.

Now let’s turn our attention to the word comprise. Going back to my trusty dictionary, I read this definition: To consist of. Usage: The traditional rule states that the whole comprises the parts; the parts compose the whole. The note about usage clears it up nicely. Comprise moves from whole to parts; compose moves from parts to whole.

Let’s go back to our examples. An essay comprises various types of paragraphs (introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusion). An orchestra comprises many musicians playing a broad variety of musical instruments. My favorite chocolate chip cookies comprise many fresh and flavorful ingredients. The photograph seen above comprises a darkened sky populated with many stars and the band of the Milky Way dividing the scene in half, with the foreground revealing a dead tree trunk resting on the desert sands and scrub. Whole to part.

I think now we have the gist of things and can confidently fill in the blanks in the sentences.

Fifty states (parts) compose the Union.

The Supreme Court (whole) typically comprises nine justices.

I feel pretty smart right now. How about you? I love having my dictionary close at hand to help me navigate the intricacies of the English language. If you don’t own a dictionary that you can consult, I recommend you find one you like and put it to use. While the Internet does indeed offer a wealth of information literally at our fingertips, it just can’t replace the experience of paging through a well used and much loved volume. Another benefit to consider is that when you use a dictionary, you are modeling its use for your students, which is always a clever idea.


Jennifer Mauser has always loved reading and writing and received a B.A. in English from the University of Kansas in 1991. Once she and her husband had children, they decided to homeschool, and she put all her training to use in the home. In addition to homeschooling her children, Jennifer teaches IEW classes out of her home, coaches budding writers via email, and tutors students who struggle with dyslexia.

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