Wikipedia Editor’s Effort Comprises 50,000 Fixes


Software engineer Bryan Henderson was described by blogger Jan Freeman as “the very model of a harmless drudge,” borrowing from the definition for lexicographer in Samuel Johnson’s dictionary.

To others, Henderson is either “a hero of our times” or a man wasting countless hours championing a no-longer-meaningful distinction.

Henderson has made more than 50,000 edits to Wikipedia articles to correct incorrect instances of comprised of, a common construction long derided by usage guides and English teachers. 

When comprise first entered English, in the 15th century, it meant to take hold of. Its prise ending is related to prehensile, or able to be grasped. It also was a synonym for comprehend, a usage that lasted until at least the 19th century. The consist of meaning is nearly as old, and that’s the one that predominates now. 

If comprise means consist of, to say comprised of is redundant. A traditional Manhattan comprises whiskey, vermouth and bitters. The whole comprises its parts.

Style guides like to draw the distinction, and we are beholden to our style guides, but there is little harm and no real illogic in using comprised of. The best argument against it is that it bothers people. But to say something comprises something also bothers people—it strikes some as stuffy. The headline to this column strikes me as stuffy.

If someone asked me to describe a Manhattan, I would say it consists of whiskey, vermouth and bitters. Or I would simply say “it’s whiskey, vermouth and bitters,” before launching into a possibly unwelcome lecture on different types of whiskey, ratios, chilling and mixing, the meaning of dash, etc.

As copy editors, we insist on following style in order to dispel the confusion that could come with two divergent grammatical uses appearing in a single publication. And so Henderson’s hour a week of comprised of correcting is a valid pursuit for a grammar hobbyist. It takes away a distraction.

It’s particularly commendable that Henderson doesn’t blindly substitute. Often, he simplifies, complaining that many writers use comprise to intentionally make a sentence “longer and more sophisticated.” For Henderson, “a team comprised of scientists” does not become “a team composed of scientists.” It’s better written as “a team of scientists.”

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