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GMAT Idioms of Whole and Part

UPDATE: You can find this blog and others about idioms in our new GMAT Idiom eBook!

Many things have wholes made of parts, parts grouped together into wholes.  Atoms and molecules are the parts of material substance.  The whole of the United States is, as the name suggests, made of fifty parts, the states.  On any large company’s balance sheet, the whole of the revenue or the cost or the profit would be broken down into several individual parts.   This is a meta-idea that transcends natural science, social sciences, and the humanities, and is applicable to virtually any topic discussed on the GMAT.  Needless to say, the idioms pertinent to parts & wholes are immensely important to understand.

The five most important idioms are listed below — for some of them, it’s very important to understand the active vs. passive use.

a. consists of

b. composes, is composed of

c. comprises

d. includes, is included in

e. exemplifies, is exemplified by

As a general rule, remember that the present participle (consisting, composing, including, deriving, exemplifying) follow the active use of the verb, while the past participle (composed of, included in, exemplified by) follows the passive use of the verb.


Consists of

The verb consist is an intransitive verb — that is, a verb that does not take a direct object; in other words, there’s no passive form of this verb, so we only have to worry about the active form.  In the construction “P consists of Q”, P is the whole, and Q is the part.

1. In poker, a full house consists of a pair of one value and three of a kind of another value.

2. Most soft drinks, consisting of little more than sugar water, have no nutritional value. 



In the active form, “P composes Q”, P is the part, and Q is the whole: the active form of this verb is rare in formal language.  The word “compose” is used more commonly in the passive.   The passive form of this verb does not follow the standard pattern with the preposition “by” — instead, the passive of “P composes Q” is “Q is composed of P.”

3.  The Legislative Branch of the United States government is composed of two chambers, the House of Representatives and the Senate.

4. The US Virgin Islands, composed of three large islands and number of smaller islands, have been a US territory since 1916.



This is a very tricky word, and few people use it correctly; many confuse it with “compose”, which means something quite different.   Technically, in the construction “P comprises Q”, P is the whole, Q is the parts, and it is understood from this construction that Q is an exhaustive list of the parts.

5. The state of California comprises 58 counties.

6. A baseball team, comprising a full roster of 25 men, never has more than nine players on the field at any one time.

This verb could also be used in the passive.  Many folks confuse this word with the word “compose”, and we seem to be reaching the point at which the mistakes are starting to bleed over into standard English — traditionally, “is comprised of” would have been considered absolutely wrong, but now, some authorities on usage allow it.  Given the confusion over this word, I believe the GMAT is likely to avoid it.



This may be the easiest word on the list.   In the active form “P includes Q”, P is the whole and Q is the part; this active form is completely straightforward.  The passive form is unusual only in that it takes the preposition “in”, instead of the standard preposition “by.”

7a.  The European Union includes both Slovakia and Slovenia.

7b.  Both Slovakia and Slovenia are included in the European Union.



Now, perhaps the trickiest word on the list. In the active construction “P exemplifies Q”, P is the specific example, and Q is the general case.

8. Magoosh exemplifies the small high-tech Bay Area start-ups that have been successful doing business around the globe.

9. The Eroica Symphony, exemplifying a symphony of the Classical period, arguably contains all the defining features of the Romantic movement.

10. The quaternions, exemplifying a noncommutative division algebra, form one of only two finite-dimensional division rings containing the real numbers as a proper subring.

(Aren’t you glad you don’t have to answer Reading Comprehension questions about quaternions?!)

When we change “P exemplifies Q” to the passive “Q is exemplified by P”, the subject of the passive, Q, is the general case, and the object of “by” is the example.

11.  Beta decay is exemplified by the decay of C-14 to stable Nitrogen.

12. Pirates of the so-called “Golden Age of Piracy“, exemplified by Captain Kidd and Blackbeard, played a large role in the settlement and control of European colonies in the New World.

13. James Joyce‘s literary alter egos, exemplified by Stephen Dedalus in both Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and the Ulysses and by Shem the Penman in Finnegans Wake, offer his biographers tantalizing insights into his motivations and methods.



Know the idioms given in bold in this post.  As always with idioms, read, read, read!   Search for the idioms in this post in context.  You understand English best when you understand it in context.


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