Buffy just finished reading a book that her former professor and now friend Chris Blake wrote. Along with the occasional bursts of laughter (because he's quite funny) and the frequent pauses to discuss and investigate his claims (because he's quite provocative) she also pointed out a few mistakes (because he's quite human). There were very few -- such editing oversights as giving a character two different names and giving a quote two different speakers.
Buffy is a close reader. I flinch every time she looks at my writing. She follows arguments well and she catches all inconsistencies. And she remembers from several years ago Blake enlightening his students by informing them that nauseous (causing nausea) is commonly misused when the speaker means nauseated (feeling nausea); and that comprised of is misused when the speaker means composed of.
So there on page 82 of his book Buffy found that her mentor wrote
and the human sanctuaries that comprise the church are free to wonder and probe without fear
A stumble she figured. Surely he remembers his old rule. Then on page 92:
It was a test comprised of one hundred problems
Blake is a fine writer and editor. He uses words knowingly and he expresses himself clearly. And I'm not going to say anything critical about his use of the word comprise in these sentences. When Buffy shook her head on reading them I asked her to temper her distaste. There were certainly other instances of Blake's writing that deserved a some teasing.1
I will however take issue with his lesson to the students. Perhaps he will temper the very advice he has shown he doesn't always heed.
Here's the usual argument regarding this word:
To comprise means to bring together or collect. So a house comprises thousands of bricks. A mall comprises many smaller stores. And a university comprises several schools/colleges. Ergo!(those pedants like to say as much as they can in Latin)
it is incorrect to say that a burrito is comprised of lettuce tomatoes beans cheese etc. It is incorrect to say that 88 keys comprise a full piano keyboard. And it is doubly incorrect to say that this nation is comprised of 48 states.
Before I address the fluidity of language I should note that the etymology of the word does go back to a meaning of collecting and gathering. And if we look carefully we find that the word merges with comprehend. According to the OED the -prise ending was probably formed by analogy with several other English words such as enterprise -- the verb derived from the formally identical noun.
To put it simply: nouns that ended in -prendre showed a pattern of becoming verbs ending in -prise. Some verbs ending in -prendre followed suit.
Now some will wail and moan and argue still that comprised of meaning made up of is a recent misunderstanding and misappropriation of the word. That it's a flat mistake: the wrong meaning. This argument will often go to such horrific worst case scenarios as "what if up starts to mean down?" They argue that words so arbitrarily linked to meanings will eventually become meaningless.
Point 1) The very fact that they know a word is being used incorrectly means that the intended meaning is clear. If I say "Two cups comprise a pint" or "I listened to a choir comprised of 32 singers" the meaning of the word is clear. Not arbitrary. We are allowed to use context.
Second point) It's not a recent trend. The OED entry includes the meaning "To constitute, make up, compose" and provides citations as early as 1794. Nine citations are included for this meaning: more quotations than are given for any other use. The passive use meaning "To be composed of, to consist of" gets four citations of its own. The earliest included is from 1874.
Meanings change. And it's mere convention that determines which meanings connect to which forms. This is not to say that those conventions don't serve a purpose. My point is simply that when the currents of language create the occasional polysemy and the occasional complete shift it is not a deterioration. It is merely evidence that language is of the people for the people and yes by the people.
And scoff as you might I'll bet you are okay with this (I now address the skeptics). Let's take a look at the history of apprise. The -prise ending is also derived (by analogy) from a form ending in -prendre. That early form of the word (from the French) had the meaning to grasp or understand. We still have that meaning preserved in the familiar form apprehend. And apprise once had the same meaning. But it went through a very reasonable shift and came to mean inform teach or enlighten.
Where's all the complaining about that shift in meaning?
Take a look at his Union College profile page (link above) and note his use of aerobie as a mass noun. It's like he thinks it's a real sport or something. (This may be related to the aggrandizing effect of mass nouns that I've mentioned before.) Now I agree that "throwing aerobies" sounds like a juggling act. Couldn't he just say "throwing around the ol' aerobie"? Yeah. That sounds more like fun and less like a sanctioned and organized activity.