Above the Law

Fastidious use of comprise has become increasingly rare. Garner’s Modern American Usage labels the form *is comprised of as “invariably inferior” (that’s what the apostrophe signifies), yet gauges its acceptance in actual use as Stage 4 on the 5-stage “language-change index.” To you as a legal writer, that means using the phrase still carries some danger that your judicial reader might well cringe at your sloppy usage.

To get comprise and its partners — such as compose and make up — straight, let’s boil down the distinctions and make it simpler to use these words correctly.

The parts of something make up the whole {thirty lawyers make up the firm}.
The whole is composed of the parts {the firm is composed of thirty lawyers}.
The whole comprises its parts {the firm comprises thirty lawyers}.
The parts are comprised in the whole {thirty lawyers are comprised in the firm}.

Many mistakes occur with comprise, which means “to contain, to include, to consist of.” Comprise takes the preposition in, never of. So the phrase *is comprised of should be replaced by either is composed of or comprises {the committee *is comprised of [read is composed of or comprises] three practicing lawyers, two judges, and five law professors}. Another common error is using comprise for constitute {the 12-acre ranch, stocks and bonds, and jewelry comprise [read constitute or make up] the grandfather’s estate}.

If you find yourself hesitating when choosing between compose and comprise, test the relationship between the subject and the object by using make up. If the sentence makes sense, then compose is the right word {the lawyers make up the committee} {the committee is made up of lawyers}. Otherwise, comprise is correct.

Next week: The IP bar’s special—and idiosyncratic—use of comprise.

Sources:
Garner’s Modern American Usage 175 (3d ed. 2009).
Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage 188-89 (3d ed. 2011).
The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style § 12.3, at 262 (3d ed. 2013).
Wilson Follett, Modern American Usage: A Guide 102 (Barzun ed. 1966).
R.W. Burchfield, The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage 167-68 (3d ed. 1996).

Thanks to Dale Conder Jr., Patricia Leigh Disert, David Rosenbloom, and Rick Schnake for suggesting this topic.

Bryan A. Garner, President of LawProse Inc., is the most prolific CLE presenter in the U.S., having trained more than 150,000 lawyers and judges. His book — most prominently Black’s Law Dictionary and Garner’s Modern American Usage — have been cited as authority by every state and federal appellate court, including the highest. For more about him, go to www.lawprose.org. To follow him on Twitter: @bryanagarner.