Consist and Comprise
[ Issue 47 ]

'Consist' and 'Comprise' intrigue Emily Bronto

Let Bikwil introduce you to 'Consist' and 'Comprise'

"Consist" and "Comprise"

Here comes a friendly diatribe by Harlish Goop

He begins in a swelling miasma, then gets all antiquarian on us and ends up in a rail-car.

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A Word in Your Pink Shell-like — Harlish Goop


Readers should be aware by now that I have done my utmost to eschew exegetical pedantry in this column — not to mention periphrastic pomposity. So we wouldn’t want my self-discipline to weaken at this late stage in our linguistics game, would we?

And yet . . . and yet . . .

There comes a time when all good logophiles must struggle to their aching feet and answer the barely audible call of civilisation. A call, I might add, that is receding faster as we speak.

I bet that just one look at the following list will have you deducing what’s in the wind here:


Yes, I know I’m not the first to bemoan the misuse of these words (and I sure won’t be the last), but I can restrain myself no longer.

Stand by a for a short rant.

I’ll begin with the swelling miasma shrouding consist and comprise. This misunderstanding ranks second only to that of one of my other personal pet peeves: imply (speaker) versus infer (listener).

The current situation is mainly the result of the mistaken formation of comprise of on the analogy of consist of. So on a certain Web site we meet

Which modern day countries did the Roman Empire comprise of?

Likewise at another site:

Our panel of translators comprise of at least 5 translators for each language.

A third site provides an exceptional mixture:

A TFFO Premiership squad shall consist of 18 players and must comprise of 2 goalkeepers, 3 full-backs, 3 centre-backs, 6 midfielders and 4 strikers.

A Champions League squad shall consist of 18 players and must comprise of 2 goalkeepers, 6 defenders, 6 midfielders and 4 strikers.

A Championship squad shall consist of 18 players and must comprise 2 goalkeepers, 6 defenders, 6 midfielders and 4 strikers.

(This particular game ended with a final goal score of consist of: 3 out of 3 and comprise: 1 out of 3.)

The easiest way to preserve the correct usage is to remember that consist of means “be composed of” and the preposition-less comprise means “contain”.

Mind you, Pam Peters in her Cambridge Australian English Style Guide (ISBN: 0 521 57634 2, paperback) points out that a “mirror-image” meaning of comprise now exists. It occurs when a sentence begins with the parts rather than the whole:

The meaning of 'comprise' . . . depends on whatever the writer makes its subject.

Her examples make it clear:

The book comprises three sections.


Three sections comprise the book.

Now, a question for the language antiquarians among us. Is there still a place in modern English for consist in?

Short answer: only in very formal writing. According to Peters, the distinction between consist in and consist of arose only in the 19th century. She gives these examples:

His argument consists in casting aspersions at all previous work in the field


The kit consists of scissors, thread and sewing cards.

As her examples show, the difference is one of conceptual versus tangible. So we use consist in when pinpointing

. . . the (usually abstract) principle of which underlies something

and consist of when specifying

. . . the several (usually physical) components of something.

Next, let me write a few words on constitute in relation to comprise and consist.

Like others before him (and after), Eric Partridge (Usage and Abusage (1947+), sees comprise as meaning “to contain”, and constitute as mean “to form”, “to make up”, “to compose”.

As for consist of versus constitute, he quotes word-lover Maurice H. Weesen’s Words Confused and Misused (1932?):

A whole consists of parts; the parts constitute the whole.

Sir Ernest Gowers, in his Complete Plain Words (1948+) differentiates between comprise and include:

The difference between comprise and include is that comprise is better when all the components are enumerated and include when only some of them are.

Perhaps all the above can be summarised in a table.

Try this:

    Parts/Whole Abstract/Concrete All/Some
  compose parts
  comprise (a) parts all
  comprise (b) whole
  consist in whole abstract
  consist of whole concrete
  constitute parts
  include parts some

Finally, here’s something startling yours truly learned only while researching this topic. On top of everything else, consist can be a noun.

Surely not?

Yes, it’s true, but only if you’re talking about trains.

In a railway context a consist refers to a collection of rail cars coupled together to make-up a train for service.

So, where to from here?

Well, with your gentle encouragement, I may as well keep my eyes peeled for any other English worth shuddering at. I suppose there must be some somewhere.

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