The Currently Most Frequently Misused Word in the English Language

Filed under:Language Barrier,Need a Good Editor? — posted by Anwyn on January 28, 2008 @ 10:38 pm

“Comprise” or “comprised.”

Meaning: To consist of; to include; to take the parts into the whole, as in “The nation of Canada comprises several distinct provinces.”

Misuse: “The nation of Canada is comprised of several distinct provinces.”

The whole comprises the parts. The parts never comprise the whole; nor is the whole ever comprised of the parts. The word you’re looking for, misusers, is “composed.” “The nation of Canada is composed of several distinct provinces.” Drop two letters and substitute a third and you will have the correct usage.

The vast number of educated people who constantly misuse this word boggles my mind. If you’re one of them, stop it. Stop it right now, I say. Unfortunately the misuse has become so common that it has passed into general usage. Just because Saul Bellow decided he was cool enough to do it and his editors didn’t stop him doesn’t mean you have to contribute to the gradual erosion of proper meanings.


  1. Regarding the “misuse” of which you speak, Merriam-Webster writes:

    Although it has been in use since the late 18th century, sense 3 is still attacked as wrong. Why it has been singled out is not clear, but until comparatively recent times it was found chiefly in scientific or technical writing rather than belles lettres. Our current evidence shows a slight shift in usage: sense 3 is somewhat more frequent in recent literary use than the earlier senses.

    Another false arrest by the Language Police, I say.

    Comment by Xrlq — January 29, 2008 @ 4:00 am

  2. I love the language police! Maybe we can get “parent” out of the verb category.

    Comment by Chuck Bell — January 29, 2008 @ 6:01 am

  3. Xrlq–Not false arrest, just arrest under a very old statute. :) What can I say, I’m an old-fashioned girl.

    Comment by Anwyn — January 29, 2008 @ 7:28 am

  4. I can deal with old-fashioned as long as it works in favor of linguistic freedom as well as against it. Can I count on your support for rehabilitating the much-maligned ain’t as the accepted contraction for “am not” that it once was? We’re still missing a contraction in that department, and the English has never been the same since, as evidenced by that grammatically retarded tag question “Aren’t I?” Yes, I are.

    Comment by Xrlq — January 29, 2008 @ 3:50 pm

  5. Well, before I answer, can you confirm that that really is your position rather than a great yawning sarchasm proffered for me to tip myself into? :)

    Comment by Anwyn — January 29, 2008 @ 4:51 pm

  6. As a recovering linguist, it’s not my place to be for or against any particular expressions. I do find it odd, though, that ain’t fell out of favor, resulting in the lexical gap described above. I don’t know what caused the word to fall from grace. Maybe the fact that people started using it in the plural, and in the second and third person?

    Comment by Xrlq — January 29, 2008 @ 5:23 pm

  7. I’ve seen its cousin, an’t, in Jane Austen, but that was for “are not.” We come at this from slightly different angles–my primary editorial concern is readability. I can see how ain’t might have been considered a bit clumsy in that regard, but I think your point about the missing contraction would weigh more. I too wonder how it fell out–misuse is as good a guess as any, probably better.

    Comment by Anwyn — January 29, 2008 @ 5:37 pm

  8. Sometimes “ain’t” is the only right word to use. Such as, “That ain’t so.”

    I can live without “comprise” because it’s such a sissybritches word to begin with, used to sound smart instead of comprehensible. (I can be incomprehensible without sounding smart.)

    Please, help yourself. Make lots of arrests. Somebody needs to, ’cause it just ain’t right. I don’t care who said it.

    Comment by Anne — January 31, 2008 @ 1:53 pm

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