Halting language change: Wikipedia Grammar Vigilante

Grammar vigilantes are not a novelty. Perhaps one of the best-publicized grammar crusades was the Great Typo Hunt, a nationwide mission by two young Americans who corrected hundreds of public typos during a three-month road trip and were imprisoned as a consequence. They describe their adventure in this book.

Nowadays grammar wars are largely waged online, as the recent example of the Wikipedia vigilante shows. Although people often complain about and comment on online usage, wikis – the collaborative online platforms with their editing-for-all options – allow individuals to do something about it and correct their pet peeves. A Wikipedia editor, Bryan Henderson, thus corrected 47,000 instances of ‘comprised of’ on the grounds of the expression’s redundancy, as he explains in detail in his Wikipedia essay. Better alternatives, Henderson suggests, are ‘composed of’ and ‘consist of’.

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According to the HUGE database, there are a number of usage problems that make it on the redundancy list (redundant words underlined), such as ‘equally as’, ‘meet up with’, ‘the reason is because’, double comparatives/superlatives such as ‘more warmer’, etc.

David Shariatmadari from the Guardian comments* on the crusade and concludes that personal preferences should not be imposed on everyone and that logical inconsistencies can’t be applied rigorously to natural languages.
However, the usage of ‘comprised of’ has moved beyond personal preferences.
Looking at the COHA corpus it is obvious that ‘{comprise/V} of’ is on the rise.

compriseAlthough linguistic change is often related to the less formal genres and spoken language, the case of ‘to be comprised of’ is among the exceptions, it is most commonly found in academic writing. There are obvious differences in usage between ‘comprise’ and ‘comprise of’. ‘Comprise of’ appears in the majority of instances in passive constructions ‘to be comprised of’ – and its active counterpart is not followed by a preposition:

‘The study comprised 451 persons’

‘The U.S. is comprised of many different cultural and linguistic groups’.

In spite of Henderson’s efforts to prevent this usage and halt ongoing linguistic change, it seems that the evidence from real language use in corpora is working against him.

The Telegraph featured a poll asking its readers if they considered Henderson to be a pedant or a hero. The majority (56%) decided on hero. Would you agree?

*Special thanks to Joan Beal for forwarding the article!

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3 Responses to Halting language change: Wikipedia Grammar Vigilante

  1. Of course, even if he manages to edit out every “comprised of” not just in Wikipedia but in all written English everywhere, he won’t really have halted language change; he’ll just have erased the evidence of it in print. People will go on merrily saying and writing “comprised of”, and he’ll just keep editing them out to no avail.

  2. Steve Brecher says:

    “…the case of ‘to be comprised of’ is among the exceptions, it is most commonly found in academic writing.”

    Would this be an example of what my schoolteachers called a “run-on sentence” in which the comma ought to be replaced by, say, a semicolon? I do realize that my use of “ought” may beg some questions.

    I have just discovered this web site and project via a tweet by Steven Pinker. Is there a forum — in the internet sense of an interactive bulletin board — in which interested laypersons can interact with academics and professionals on issues of prescriptivism versus descriptivism and on specific usage questions?

    • Morana Lukač says:

      Thank you for your comment, Steve. Well spotted ‘run-on-sentence’(;), I think you raise an interesting question here, namely, should we obey prescriptive rules when writing about the prescriptive-descriptive debate from a descriptive standpoint.
      There are many online resources dealing with usage which are written by language professionals (editors, linguists, writers). You will find some of them by looking up the blogs on our blogroll.

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