Comprised of

I have just read an article about an extremely dedicated and efficient WikiGnome who has edited tens of thousands Wikipedia articles to change a single grammatical error – “is comprised of”.

My initial reaction was that the phrase was perfectly acceptable and the journalist’s dread of having published work that included the phrase was overblown.

I checked a dictionary, which list examples of the phrase:

It is sufficiently common that it doesn’t jar.

However, the Wikipedian’s own explanation of why he opposes the phrase is logically sound:

As is this note from the dictionary:

These sentences are standard English:

“Air consists of nitrogen, oxygen and other gases.”

“Air is composed of nitrogen, oxygen and other gases.”

“Air comprises nitrogen, oxygen and other gases.”

Sentences of this sort are commonly accepted but, I now accept, illogical:

“Air is comprised of nitrogen, oxygen and other gases.”

The phrase “is comprised of” merges the correct uses of consist and compose. It attempts to mean the same thing in the passive and active voice. It’s similar to “irregardless” being used to mean “regardless”: an opposite with the same meaning.

Whether we should use “is comprised of” is a contentious question, and many people feel that it’s fine. However, why do we instantly reject this sentence?

“Air is consisted of nitrogen, oxygen and other gases.”

This sentence is logically equivalent to one with “is comprised of”. Searching for the phrase “is consisted of” in the English Wikipedia turns up only 69 instances, mainly in user talk pages rather than the actual articles:

It seems likely that our acceptance of sentences as grammatical or not is based more on recognition and familiarity than on a strict logical evaluation of the words.

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