Zoo comprises animals

Comprise has undergone a substantial shift in usage since first appearing in English in the 15th century… (Merriam Webster)

“Comprise” is among the terms listed in the chapter of The Elements of Style entitled “Words and Expressions Commonly Misused.” The authors explain that the word literally means “embrace.” They provide the example of a zoo, which comprises many animals while animals constitute a zoo.

“One Man’s Passion for the English Language,” a segment on CBS Sunday Morning, made the same point. It told about the battle waged by San Jose, Calif., computer engineer Bryan Henderson. He spent years changing every misuse of the phrase “comprised of” on Wikipedia, and then developed a program to help him assure newer entries do not contain the ungrammatical term. He often changed the phrase to “composed of.”

When it arrived from Kansas City, this box of Christopher Elbow Chocolates comprised 16 distinctive pieces of sumptuous hand-crafted candy; in short time, it comprised none.

Associated Press style sometimes gives way to popular usage. For example, until about 2013 “under way” was to be used as two words with rare exceptions, like an underway flotilla. But, even though “comprised of” is in widespread misuse, the stylebook still insists that it is best used only in the active voice. The book even provides the example of a zoo, which comprises animals.

Having seen the CBS segment recently, I readily noticed that a letter from my high school alma mater is worthy of a Catholic school reprimand. It stated, “… the Search Committee was intentionally comprised of ten members …” (I’m not sure what style the letter follows, but the use of upper case and “ten” instead of “10” tell me it’s not AP style.)

On the other hand, I appreciated its correct use of “comprise” in the 2010 bestseller The Healing of America, author T.R. Reid writes, “Today, the interstates – formally designated the Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways – comprise 47,000 miles of road, 55,500 bridges, 14,750 interchanges, and zero stoplights.”

(In case you’re wondering, Reid made the statement to show the success of borrowing ideas from the Germans when creating the U.S. interstate system. He argues the U.S. can have a better health care system by similarly adapting ideas from other countries.)

UPDATE: According to Merriam Webster, it is now acceptable to use comprise to mean  “to make up.” This means “the zoo is comprised of animals” is grammatical. The dictionary’s word-of-the-day entry for October 21, 2019, stated, “Comprise has undergone a substantial shift in usage since first appearing in English in the 15th century. … Until relatively recently, this less-favored sense appeared mostly in scientific writing, but current evidence shows that it is now somewhat more common in general use than the word’s other meanings.”