The verb “comprise” means “to be made up of, consist of, or include.”  We can say that the nation of Canada comprises ten provinces and three territories. Or we can say that the cinema complex comprises four movie theaters.  

The verb “compose” looks at things from the opposite direction.  Ten provinces and three territories compose the nation of Canada. Likewise, four movie theaters compose the cinema complex.  The meaning of “compose” is to “make up.” The meaning of “comprise” is “be made up of.”

Many of us run into trouble with “comprise” and “compose,” however, when we use them in the passive voice. In this regard, “comprise” becomes a problem (for people who highly regard word grammar) because “comprise” already has a passive kind of meaning.  It means “be made up of.”

If we say “Canada is comprised of ten provinces and three territories,”  we create a double passive meaning that can’t even be put into words– “Canada is been made up of…”??  “Canada is included of…”?? We really need the word “compose” here instead of “comprise”:  “Canada is composed of…”;  “The cinema complex is composed of….”

Of course, we’ve all heard “comprise” used in the passive voice and used with the meaning of “compose.”  “Be comprised of” may even become the preferred form. After all, we create and shape our own language, and people seem to like the sound of “be comprised of.”

Still, if you don’t want grammatical traditionalists criticizing your usage, consider sticking with “be composed of” as in the following sentences:

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