Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Words Should Compose and Comprise Your Real Meaning

Lieven asks:
I was just looking up 'comprise' and 'contain' after a student wrote: 'Being fat
contains a series of problems'. Surely the word should be 'comprises'? But I
haven't found exactly why that is. Abstract (comprise) vs concrete (contain)? I
teach Dutch - English translation in Belgium.

I answer:

Funny. I keep running into issues of imprecise word choice. For example, yesterday I edited an article that said that Such-and-such famous athlete had had his plate full this year with chores such as product endorsements, tournaments, kids and a vacationing with his family. While it's true that any vacation with my family is a painful chore, this guy can afford any family he wants. So I don't think the writer chose the right word.

In your case, I think the problem is that the student didn't stop and ask herself/himself, "What, exactly, does being fat do?" After all, it's a verb we're looking for, so it's about the doing.

Being fat presents problems.
Being fat creates problems.
Being fat causes problems.
Being fat invites problems.

Any of these may say exactly what your student meant. Then again, they might not.

My guess is that "presents" better captures the intended meaning than contains or comprises. But again, that's something only the writer can say for sure.

Comprise and contain are synonyms, but, to my ear, they have different connotations. "Contains" almost seems to suggest volume, where as "comprises" seems to suggest a group of individual things. That's why I kind of agree with you that "comprises" would be a better choice -- almost like you can count "problems" but you can't fill a milk jug with them.

My Webster's reinforces this, if only slightly. All its entries for "comprise" use countable examples -- "a nation comprising 13 states." But one of its entries for "contain" uses a measurable but not countable example, "tea": "the can contains tea."

All that is subjective and highly debatable, but just my sense of things.

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