wiki gnome brings it home

When it comes to the rutty fields of language change, we’ve all got skin in the game. Offline and on, we skirmish for new spellings, defend arcane expressions, rally in the Twittersphere for grammatical poise. We alternately boo and cheer from our respective bleachers. What better venue for this perpetual contest than the open-source arena of Wikipedia?

Wandering the inter-tubes last week, you may have come across the software engineer, Bryan Henderson (aka Giraffedata) who for nearly eight years has taken it upon himself to edit almost every instance in Wikipedia of one particular grammatical grievance. That would be using “comprised of” where “composed of” is the acknowledged correct usage. Henderson, by today’s count, has made 47,759 edits of this discreet, some might call hair-splitting, error.

Of course, having earned the ire of many Wikipedia writers not taking kindly to the unsolicited grammaring of their work, his detractors are many. I have to confess, until I read his well-crafted argument on Wikipedia I was skeptical, too. On balance though, Henderson has gleaned much gratitude among those of us who once lived in darkness regarding this peculiar but proper peeve.

Now, at this point you’d be right to ask, who bloody cares?

For the reader, it just comes down to accuracy and readability. Just for giggles, which of these sentences is easiest to read?
1. The office space is comprised of the cubicles and desks of thirty humorless employees.
“Comprise” is a great word, but it’s rendered useless here in passive voice.
2. The office space is composed of the cubicles and desks of thirty humorless employees.
“Composed of” is correct, but too common and distant here in passive voice.
3. The office space comprises the cubicles and desks of thirty humorless employees.
“Comprise” transfers the idea easily from subject to object. Active voice wins!

“Comprised of” is gaining the popular vote, though, and it has good company in the swamp of grammatical transgressions now considered standard usage. That said, I do find Henderson’s argument compelling: using “comprised of” instead of more logical or precise phrasing is not only etymologically incorrect; it’s out of step with the standard English of the day (never mind tomorrow).

I’ve been using “comprised of” for decades in academic writing, even teaching it without actually thinking it through. I admit that in lucid moments, the expression did wear on me. I wondered—on some level, anyway—if I didn’t mean that my classes comprised students of many nationalities and not the silly-sounding passive of same. A fickle thing, this native tongue. I shrugged and marched along with the colleagues and education writers around me, perpetuating the madness. And so it goes.

Speaking of his motivation, Henderson writes:
“As one who subscribes to the anti-comprised-of doctrine… I can tell you it triggers the same ‘what an idiot’ neurons… as ‘could of’ and ‘could care less’. If I can spare any readers that discomfort without hurting anyone else, why wouldn’t I?”

And to that I say, hazzah! I’m grateful for the time Giraffedata is able to devote to this sustained act of grammatical heroism, and I laud the excellent defense of home turf in his campaign for accuracy. But it’s a long game, language. One comprised of endless scrimmage and shifting lines.

Read Andrew McMillen’s excellent article on this subject and on Henderson, “the ultimate WikiGnome,” here.

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