What’s the Difference? “Comprise” vs. “Include”

Although common in technical and scientific writing (see Merriam-Webster), “comprise” is one of those words that seems to evade definition. We know it means something similar to “include” but that it’s also a little different.

I did some research, and here’s what I learned. The difference between “comprise” and “include” is scope. “Comprise” means “includes all of these and nothing else,” whereas “include” means “includes all of these and maybe something else, too.”

Let’s say you’re writing a software manual. You need to draft the chapter on installation, so you open the chapter this way:

Installing the software [comprises/includes] the following steps:
  1. Downloading the software
  2. Running the executable file
  3. Configuring the end-user component
  4. Configuring the administrator’s component
  5. Creating user log-in credentials 
  6. Distributing user log-in credentials

If you wanted to imply that installation requires all of these steps and nothing else, you’d use “comprises.” But, if you wanted to imply that installation requires these steps and maybe other, less significant ones, you’d use “includes.”

Do most readers know the difference? Some do. But I suspect that “comprise” is one of those throw-back words that only writers and journalistic snobs such as Keith Olbermann (may his career rest in peace–or pieces) care about.

In our example, though, I’d use “includes”–but for a different reason: As a technical writer, if I’m going to list the steps to installing a piece of software, isn’t it understood that I’d list all of them here anyway?

Next week: Sufferin’ Suffixes! Words Assaulted by Erroneous Endings.

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