Constitute or comprise?

Hi,
Ae the words ‘constitute’ and ‘comprise’ equally suitable for the following sentence?


“A group of islands off the northwest coast of Europe comprising Great Britain, Ireland, and adjacent smaller islands”

I look forward to your feedback
davidmich

The two words have different, but complementary, meanings:

Great Britain comprises England, Scotland and Wales.

England, Scotland and Wales together constitute Great Britain.

Off-hand, I can’t think of any context in which the two words would be interchangeable.

I agree with UDS, his example hits it on the head. “Comprise” means either (transitive verb) to include, or (intrasitive verb) to consist or be made up of. The word is often misused as its exact opposite.

Also, the word is very often (alas!) used in the form “comprised of.” “The United States is comprised of 48 continental states, and Alaska and Hawaii.”

“Strictly Speaking” (I invoke the ghost of Edwin Newman) this is wrong, and “comprised of” shouldn’t be used this way – or at all.

But it has become such a commonplace convention, I may be peeing against the hurricane.

Any time a grammar debate comes up I always remember this quote from H. Beam

I think one or two dopers even have that as their sig.

You’re right (I think) “comprised of” is an outright solecism.

I am personally of the old school that says “comprise” should mean only “include” but never used as “comprised of.” The Chicago Manual of Style agrees with me. However, I am apparently an old fuck because authorities on the topicsay that this has been an accepted alternate use for perhaps hundreds of years.

There are a handful of words that came to be used as the opposite of their original meanings. I get beaten up in word usage threads for objecting.

“A descriptivist is someone who says that if enough people make the same mistake, it’s not a mistake anymore.”

Comprised means a little bit more than “include”, I think; it implies a degree of comprehensiveness or completeness. You can say that Great Britain includes Wales but not, I think, that Great Britain comprises Wales; once you say “comprise” you’re going to list all the components.

So, "the house comprises three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a sitting room and a kitchen"is fine, but “the house comprises two bathrooms” is not (unless it’s a very unusual house!).

UDS: I can’t say you’re wrong, but that isn’t quite how I understood it. I can see how “comprise” might often be used with a comprehensive or complete list of components, but I don’t believe that’s part of the definition.

The word I learned to compare with “comprise” was “embrace.” So, Great Britain comprises (embraces) Scotland, England, and Wales. The statement is valid, even though it leaves out Northern Ireland and the Channel Islands and whatnot.

I’m not at all surprised at the Merriam-Webster citation. I’m pretty sure their usage notes show wholehearted approval for every singe disputed usage. I was a bit shocked that the usually more restrained American Heritage usage pannel gave their sanction.

The American Heritage Dictionary usage note for include concurs.

Well, not to pick nits or anything, but Northern Ireland, etc are not part of Great Britain. Great Britain is just the island made up of England, Scotland and Wales, which is why I chose it for my example.

I still thinkt that “comprise” introduces a list which, if not absolutely exhaustive, is at least substantially complete. “The forest comprises oaks” would not be correct of a forest which contained signifcant quantities of oak, ash, beech, larch and elm, but “the forest includes oaks” would be fine.