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August 10th, 2005

An unaccepted apology / comprise and compose

by Barbara Wallraff

Last week I reported on “awful prepackaged sentences” that crop up in everyday life. Although I had expected to receive mainly examples of corporate-speak, I also got complaints about things individuals say to one other. Here’s one more letter of this second kind, which deserves a fuller answer than I had space for last time.

Phyllis White, of Trenton, Mich., writes: “My husband has cancer and dementia. A relative wrote me a stinging letter, deriding my attitude and comments about daily trials. I answered that she couldn’t possibly understand what I was going through, as she and her husband have a carefree life together, traveling around the world, etc., while I am continually under stress. Her next letter contained the following sentence: ‘I am very sorry you feel rejected by my offerings.’ Do you agree that this sounds like a clinical and impersonal way to write a close relative?”

Dear Phyllis: Yes. “I am very sorry” is a good start, but then she goes and spoils it by not being sorry for what she said but for the way you reacted to it. What’s more, her word “offerings” is extremely defensive: The implication is that you’re such a contrary creature that you managed to turn something valuable she offered you into a reason to feel rejected. Well, phooey on her, I say.

Does this make her a bad or insensitive person? Not necessarily. All it means for sure is that she’s capable of writing a bad sentence. Good writing (or speech) does two things: It lets us see into another person’s mind or soul, and it shows us something worth admiring there. Bad writing fails to achieve either or both of those goals -- but it’s often hard to tell in which way the writer fell short. Did your relative not express herself clearly -- maybe because she failed to think through what she really wanted to say? Or does she come across as insensitive because she is? Only you can decide, on the basis of everything you know about her. If you value the support you get or might get from her, by all means give her the benefit of the doubt.

E. Charles Eckstein, of Wilton, N.Y., writes: “Why do people have such a difficult time using ‘comprise’ and ‘compose’? It’s really not that confusing: ‘The whole is composed of the sum of its parts, whereas the whole comprises the sum of its parts.’”

Dear Charles: I don’t know why people have such trouble with these two verbs, but thank you for doing my job for me. I’d add only that “The parts compose the whole” is, obviously, the way to use “compose” in the active voice. And that the most common misuse of either of these verbs is the phrase “comprised of.”

A whole is composed of its parts, and the parts compose the whole. Therefore, since the whole comprises its parts, the parts ought to be “comprised of” the whole. But nobody uses “is comprised of” that way. People use it where just plain “comprises” -- or “is made up of” -- would be correct. “Comprised of” has no useful purpose to serve.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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