Pop quiz (pun intended): which of these sentences is correct?
(1) The Spice Girls comprised Melanie Brown, Emma Bunton, Melanie Chisholm, Victoria Beckham and Geri Halliwell.
(2) Melanie Brown, Emma Bunton, Melanie Chisholm, Victoria Beckham and Geri Halliwell comprised the Spice Girls.
(3) The Spice Girls was comprised of Melanie Brown, Emma Bunton, Melanie Chisholm, Victoria Beckham and Geri Halliwell.
Scroll down for the answer, and enjoy this picture on your way:
Option (1) is right; options (2) and (3) are not. If you got it wrong, don’t feel bad – “comprise” is one of those words people misuse so often that many dictionaries are starting to grudgingly accept sentences like (2) and (3) above. But I’m a strong believer in at least knowing the rules before you break them, so let’s stick to the traditional OED definition for now:
comprise (verb): consist of; be made up of
If you replace “comprised” with “consisted of” in the above sentences, you can see why only (1) is correct: The Spice Girls consisted of Victoria Beckham et al. In other words, this is the rule:
The whole comprises the parts.
I spent a long time trying to come up with a mnemonic to help you remember that sentence. It’s harder than you’d think. The website mnemonicgenerator.com had some surreal and troubling suggestions – the thought of “Terrible Warlocks Caressing Thirsty Prince”, “Terrifying Woodpeckers Critiquing Terrific Pimples” and “Tinkerbell Wrestling Cute Tramps Posthumously” will stay with me for a long time. I’ll leave it up to you to choose your favourite.