Saturday, November 23, 2013

Confusing verbs - consist, include, make up, comprise and constitute etc

We can use several verbs to talk about the parts that form or make up something (the whole). Some can be a little confusing, and with one, not everybody agrees on all its uses. Read a bit about them and do a short exercise. (Hat-tip to Peter Harvey at Lavengro, whose post gave me the idea - see links).

Talking about the parts of something or how it is formed

When we want to talk about the parts of something, or how something is formed, we can use several expressions, the most common being consist of and include:
  • to talk about the whole and then all of its parts, we commonly use consist of:

    The class consists of students from different parts of Asia.
    The trip consists of visits to several cities in Tuscany.

  • to talk about the whole and then only some of the parts, we use include:

    The class includes many students from Vietnam and Laos.
    The trip includes a one-day tour of Florence.

If we use consist of and talk about only some of the parts, we need to add a phrase that mentions the other parts to complete the whole
  • The class consists of students from Vietnam, Laos and other Asian countries.
  • The trip consists of visits to Florence and Sienna as well as other Tuscan cities.

Alternatives to consist of

There are a few other ways we can talk about the whole consisting of all its parts:
  • the whole consists of its parts
  • the whole comprises its parts (formal)
  • the whole is comprised of its parts (controversial)
  • the whole is made up of its parts
  • the whole is composed of its parts
There are also a few ways to say that the parts make up the whole, when we want to put the parts first, where we wouldn't be able to use consist of.
  • the parts make up the whole
  • the parts constitute the whole
  • the parts compose the whole (formal)
  • the parts comprise the whole (controversial)

Active or passive?

Note that when talking about the whole consisting of its parts, apart from consist of and comprise, the other expressions are in the passive. Where we talk of the parts making up the whole, however, we always use an active verb.

Putting the whole first 1 - comprise

In more formal language, we can use comprise instead of consist of. The main dictionaries recognise three ways of using comprise, two of which, however, are a bit controversial.
1. The first is absolutely non-controversial, and will always be considered correct:
  • The whole + comprises + all its parts (active)

    The collection comprises 327 paintings (OALD)
    The house comprises two bedrooms, a kitchen, and a living room. (Longman)
    The course comprises a class book, a practice book, and a CD. (Cambridge)

2. We can also (more controversially) use comprise in the passive with of:
  • The whole + is comprised of + all its parts (passive)

    The course is comprised of ten core modules. (Macmillan)
    The committee is comprised of well-known mountaineers. (Longman)
    The class is comprised mainly of Italian and French students. (Cambridge)

Note - this passive use is increasing, probably because of its similarity to be composed of. But not everybody likes it and you can always use the active form without of as in the previous examples, or one of these alternatives - consists of, is made up of, is composed of (see next section).
3. Apparently also a bit controversial with traditionalists, there is another use of comprise dictionaries list, where we say that one particular category or group comprises a part of the whole. This often used with words like proportion, majority and percentages:
  • A particular category or group + comprise + a proportion of the whole

    Older people comprise a large proportion of those living in poverty (OALD)
    Women comprise a high proportion of part-time workers. (Longman)
    Italian students comprise 60 percent of the class (Cambridge)

Note - this use is also increasing, but is the most controversial and especially disliked by traditional grammarians. If you need a construction like this, where the parts come first and where you can't use consists of, you're probably better using one of these alternatives: make up, constitute or compose (formal), as in the next section.

Putting the parts first - make up, constitute and compose

When we want to put the parts first, we can use make up, constitute and compose. The first two are quite neutral, with make up being a bit less formal then constitute, but the third is rather formal (and perhaps rather old-fashioned):
  • Women make up more than half of the workforce.
  • Women constitute the majority of the workforce.
  • Women compose sixty per cent of the workforce. (formal)

Note on compose

The use of compose in the active is really pretty formal and is used far more frequently in the passive (see next section).

Putting the whole first 2 - is made up of / is composed of

When the subject refers to the whole, make up and compose, but not constitute, can also be used in the passive with of:
  • This book is made up of twelve separate short stories. (Macmillan)
  • Muscle is composed of two different types of protein. (Macmillan)

Other uses of constitute

The verb constitute also has a couple of other meanings
  • to be something

    We must redefine what constitutes a family.

  • to be considered as something

    this constitutes an invasion of privacy
    In our opinion, this constitutes a breach of contract
    The local election results constitute a clear setback for the government

  • to form a group legally or officially (usually in the passive)

    The committee was constituted seven years ago to address the problems of youth unemployment.

Other uses of make up

The phrasal verb make up has several different meanings, one of which is quite similar to what we've been talking about. Here it means to complete:
  • We've managed to raise most of the deposit on the flat ourselves, and our parents are kindly making up the rest.
  • With David and Sandra we made up a foursome for tennis.

Comprise and compose - the purist picture

The purist argument is quite simple:
  • the whole comprises the parts
    A football team comprises eleven players.
  • the parts compose the whole
    Eleven players compose a football team.
This was how it was used by Fowler in the 1920s, and how it's put forward at Grammar Girl today, but there's one small problem - compose is very rarely used like this; it's nearly always used in the passive, and even then, not very often.

So should I just forget about comprise, compose etc?

Comprise - It's good to be able to vary your vocabulary sometimes, especially if you need to repeat an idea. But remember this is quite formal, and is probably best kept for academic writing. You are perfectly safe using comprise instead of consist of if you stick to the sense that the whole comprises the parts, and use the active rather than the passive. The other forms are perfectly correct grammatically, but are best avoided as not everybody likes them.
This can be a problem for native speakers, and some commentators (advising native speakers) advise, that if this is the case, it's probably best avoiding comprise altogether.
Compose - Personally, I wouldn't bother using compose, except perhaps in the passive. If you want to put the parts first, I'd use make up or (more formally) constitute.
General note - Both these words are formal, and you could very easily get through life without ever using them; there are always alternatives. But if you do manage to master them, they will boost your vocabulary a bit. And it's good to know the meanings for when you come acrosss them in texts, even if you don't use them yourself.

A bit more on consist

As well as being the most general and commonly used of these expressions, the verb consist has another couple of uses:

Consist of doing something

We can also use consist of followed by another verb (in an -ing form).
  • Most of the fieldwork consisted of making tape recordings. (Oxford Advanced Learner's)
  • My role seemed to consist of standing and smiling at people. (Macmillan)
  • Our campaign consists of making people aware of the urban environment.

Consist in something / doing something

When we say A consists in B (or doing B), it means that B is the only or most important part of A. This is rather formal, and I really include it just so you can recognise it when you see it.
  • The beauty of the city consists in its magnificent buildings. (OALD)
  • Happiness does not consist in how many possessions you own. (Longman)
  • His poetry consisted in the use of emotive language. (Oxford Online)
  • For her, happiness consists in watching television and reading magazines. (Cambridge)

Similarity between consist of and consist in

Sometimes the use of consist of and consist in can look very similar, especially when then are followed by an -ing verb. Look at these two sentences:
  • The job mainly consists of classifying evidence. (Merriam-Webster Learner's)
  • His job apparently consisted in sitting behind a little table outside the Minister's office. (Macmillan)
With words like job, work, and role, when we are simply describing what they involve, we usually use consist of. But when we want to stress that this is or appears to be ALL they involve, then we use consist in.

Adverbs that collocate with consist of / in

  • essentially, primarily, principally
  • entirely, solely
  • chiefly, largely, mainly, predominantly,


Complete the gaps with suitable words from the box. Some are used more than once.
Pick-N-Drop - Click on a word in the box, then on an appropriate gap.

composed   · comprises   · consists   · constitute   · constitutes   · in   · include   · make   · of   · up  
1. Apple pie   of an outside pastry crust and an apple filling.
2. Benelux   Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg.
3. Romantic musicals   a large part of Bollywood's output.
4. Shakespeare's works   Hamlet and Twelfth Night.
5. Young professionals   up the majority of our members.
6. The high level of traffic on this road   a real threat to cyclists.
7. What is now England was once made   of seven separate kingdoms.
8. Soil is   of four major components: minerals, organic matter, water and air.
9. The process of caramelisation   of heating sugar slowly to around 170 °C.
10. If you two can put in £5 each, I'll   up the rest.
11. The building consists   a central section and two wings.
12. Its main advantage consists   its simplicity.

A couple of graphs

These two graphs show the relative use of these expressions in a selection of publications at Google Books, using Ngram Viewer. The first graph confirms that even in written English, consist of is far more common than its alternatives.
The second graph shows how consist(s) of is used much more than consist(s) in.


  • We don't use consist in the passive, so don't say something is consisted of something.

    The class consists of students from all over the world.
    The class is consisted of students from all over the world.

  • Don't confuse comprise with consist - consist is always followed by of, but we don't follow comprise with of (unless we use it in the passive) - you might hear some native speakers do this, but it is usually considered incorrect.

    The band consists of three guitarists and a drummer.
    The band comprises of three guitarists and a drummer.

  • If you use composed in the passive, always follow it with of, not by or with.

    The building is composed of a central section and two wings
    The building is composed by/with a central section and two wings

More usage notes

Both Oxford Advanced and Longman have useful notes on how these different verbs are used (links below).




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