Using Comprise vs Compose

Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature. He has taught college English for 5+ years.

'Comprise' and 'compose' can be confusing because they look and sound similar and they are both verbs, meaning they do the same job in a sentence. But they mean different things. This lesson will walk you through what each word means and how each is used in a sentence.

Comprise Compose Confuse

The words 'comprise' and 'compose' cause a lot of mix-ups because, while they do not sound identical (like 'to', 'too', and 'two'), they still look and sound pretty similar. And to make things worse, they both do the same job in a sentence. Both words are verbs, or action words.

Looking and sounding similar and doing the same job in a sentence means that 'compose' and 'comprise' are often used incorrectly. However, while they do the same job, their meanings are very different. In some cases, they actually mean the opposite of each other. So let's look at what each word means, as well as how it is used in a sentence. We will pay special attention to the cases in which they are used in completely opposite ways.

Comprise

'Comprise' is a verb that means 'to consist of' or 'to be made of'. It is typically used to show a whole that is made up of smaller parts. Here are a few examples of the word in action:

  • Over 80 musicians comprise the symphony orchestra.
  • Protons, neutrons, and electrons comprise the parts of an atom.
  • Two senators each from all 50 states comprise the United States Senate.
  • Though Amazon is known for selling books, book sales actually comprise a small part of the website's total sales.

Two senators each from all 50 states comprise the United States Senate.
Capitol

Compose

'Compose' has a couple of different meanings, but we are going to start with the one that causes the most confusion, which is 'to make up'. Now, you may think that this is the same as 'comprise', which means 'to be made of'. But in fact, it is just the opposite of 'comprise'. 'Comprise' refers to smaller parts making up a whole. The smaller parts are the subject of the sentence, or the things doing the action. When 'compose' is used, the larger whole is the subject.

To illustrate, let's look at the same sample sentences from the previous section, rewritten to use 'compose' instead of 'comprise':

  • The symphony orchestra is composed of over 80 musicians.
  • An atom is composed of protons, neutrons, and electrons.
  • The United States Senate is composed of two senators each from all 50 states.
  • Though Amazon is known for selling books, its total sales is actually composed of many items, of which books are a small part.

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