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.
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.”
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