Homing in on ‘comprise’

Jan 19, 2014

If the whole comprises the parts, it seems like the parts should not be able to comprise the whole.

This week on That’s What They Say, Host Rina Miller and University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan take on the verb comprise used to mean compose.

In the 15th century, comprise meant “to seize” or “to comprehend.” From there, comprise took on the definition “to include.” With this meaning, a big part comprises smaller parts.

However, by the 18th century, comprise also meant compose, allowing small things to comprise a larger thing. Ever since this change, the two words have often been used interchangeably.

“In this case, we can let it mean both things,” Curzan decides.

Similarly, the phrase home in on has become synonymous with hone in on.

“It’s originally home in on,” Curzan explains. “We home in on an issue or a question, we focus on it.”

Yet, the phrase hone in on also became commonplace in the English language. Like comprise as compose, Curzan decides that both home in on and hone in on are acceptable.

Which of these phrases do you prefer? Let us know by writing on our Facebook page or leaving a comment on our website.

-Clare Toeniskoetter, Michigan Radio Newsroom