Thursday, February 05, 2015

The WikiGnome's Futile Struggle

Bryan Henderson, working under the name Giraffedata holds the record for editing the most articles in Wikipedia. Unlike most editors, he only edits one thing. He is fighting the use of the words "comprised of". He has corrected this over 47,000 times! He has also written a long screed explaining why this usage should not be allowed. This boils down to the complaint that it is non-standard usage and recommended against by style manuals. He is basically fighting a rear-guard action against the way that language evolves. This can be seen in the Free Dictionary:

The traditional rule states that the whole comprises the parts and the parts compose the whole. In strict usage: The Union comprises 50 states. Fifty states compose (or make up) the Union. Even though careful writers often maintain this distinction, comprise is increasingly used in place of compose, especially in the passive: The Union is comprised of 50 states. Our surveys show that opposition to this usage is abating. In the 1960s, 53 percent of the Usage Panel found this usage unacceptable; in 1996, only 35 percent objected. 

Clearly, Henderson is fighting a losing battle. English, like all living languages, changes over time. Words acquire new meanings or shift in how they are used. There is a great example of this given by 15th century writer, William Caxton. He was often criticized for not using "homely" words. In discussing the problems with choosing the proper words for a translation he told of some northern merchants who went to get some food on the Kentish side of the Thames: 

And specyally he axyed after eggys. And the good wyf answerde that she coude speke no frenshe. And the marchaunt was angry for he also coude speke no frenshe but wold haue hadde egges and she vnderstode hym not. And thenne at laste a nother sayd that he wolde haue eyren. Then the good wyf sayd that she vnderstood hym wel

 For those who don't read Middle English, the merchant asked for eggs but the goodwife said that she couldn't speak French. The merchant said that he couldn't speak French either but that he wanted eggs. Someone else pointed out that the local word was "eyren" which the goodwife understood.

One can imagine a 15th century of Henderson tut-tutting anyone using "egg".
In a living language, words usage shifts constantly. The only real guide is how a word or phrase is currently being used. Style guides usually represent the training edge of acceptable usage.

Henderson inadvertently is providing ammunition that "comprised of" is now standard usage. He has documented 47,000 uses of it within a single source. That means that around 1% of Wikipedia entries have used it. That's a fairly high percentage, especially given that Wikipedia entries are made by people with a higher education than the background population. 

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