Much of todays column is drawn from the emails Ive received from readers.
Before we begin, lets consider three ways I could write the above sentence.
1. This column comprises comments from several readers.
2. Contributions from my readers compose most of todays column.
3. I compiled this column from comments sent in by readers.
What are the distinctions in using these words?
Comprise: Comprise means to consist of, be composed of. Another definition is to include. Purists state that when you use the word comprise youre talking about all the parts, not just those that are included. Nonetheless, the more important distinction (in my mind) is that a sentence using comprise will start with the whole and end with the parts. Idaho comprises 44 counties.
Compose: Compose means to make up the constituent parts of; constitute or form. Sentences using compose begin with the parts and end with the whole. Forty-four counties compose the state of Idaho.
That sounds awkward. We would generally write Idaho is composed of 44 counties. Both are correct. What isnt correct is to say, Idaho is comprised of 44 counties. You wouldnt say includes of. It is OK, however, to say composed of or consists of.
Compile: This one confuses writers less often. Compile means to make or compose from other materials or sources.
Ed Torgerson felt I might have expanded my explanation of the distinction between less and fewer. He did it so well, Ive copied it here.
Mr. Torgerson felt I implied that we would also use less with minutes, miles, and by his inference, dollars. Eek! Not what I meant.
Mr. Torgerson explained that, Time, money and distance by themselves are not quantifiable until you change them into hours, dollars, or miles. So, we have more or less time, a lot of time, little time. We travel a great or short distance. We have oodles of or, more likely, little (and therefore less) money. On the other hand, we work many or few hours, we travel many or few miles, and we spend many or few dollars. And the same can be said for weight and pounds as in, He carries less weight (but fewer pounds) than he used to.
Seeking brevity, I may have skimped on clarity, and Im grateful to Mr. Torgerson for pointing it out.
Reader Roy Heberger wrote about the word decimate. He believes that we have distorted the original definition of the word, to reduce by one-tenth, to now encompass a huge reduction in numbers. Fascinating. The root is decem, meaning ten. As Mr. Heberger explained, the word originates from the Roman armys practice of punishing cowardice or bad performance by having every tenth soldier stand forward for execution.
Todays usage does indeed allow to destroy in part. However, it should not be used to mean to destroy entirely. It is also incorrect to attach a figure to the damage. Hurricane Sandy decimated ninety percent of the Jersey seashore. Nope. Doesnt work.
Mr. Heberger also pointed out two words that Im sure I have misused.
Mortality and natality are rates of deaths and births, respectively, by definition. So when we read mortality rate or natality rate those usages are literally saying the rate-rate of deaths and births. Its both redundant and incorrect.
My humble addition to this: Its acceptable to write death rate and birth rate.
I stand corrected. And grateful for alert and generous readers.
Kathy McIntosh, Boise author, speaker and freelance editor. Owner of A Well-Placed Word. firstname.lastname@example.org