User:Epicgenius/Things to avoid while editing/Comprised of

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The correctness problem[edit]

Many people do not accept "comprised of" as a valid English phrase for any meaning. The argument goes that "to comprise" means to include, as in "The 9th district comprises all of Centerville and parts of Easton and Weston." And thus, "the 9th district is comprised of ..." is gibberish.

The phrase apparently originated as a confusion of "comprise" and "composed of", which mean about the same thing, as in "the 9th district is composed of ..." There is a traditional saying to help people remember these two sound-alike words: "The whole comprises the parts; the parts compose the whole."

But "comprised of" is in common use and some people defend it as a fully valid additional definition of "to comprise". Even dictionaries acknowledge this usage, though they all tell you it's disputed and typically discourage writers from using it. See for example Wiktionary.

Here is my view of why "comprised of" is poor writing:

  • It's completely unnecessary. There are many other ways to say what the writer means by "comprised of". It adds nothing to the language.
  • It's illogical for a word to mean two opposite things.
  • The etymology of the word does not support "comprised of". It comes from Latin words meaning to hold or grasp together. Other English words based on those same roots are "comprehensive" and "prehensile" (as in a monkey's prehensile tail: it can grab things). Comprise's French cousin also makes this clear.
  • It's new. Many current Wikipedia readers learned to write at a time when no respectable dictionary endorsed "comprised of" in any way. It was barely ever used before 1970. Even now, style manuals frequently call out this particular usage as something not to do.
  • It's imprecise. English has a variety of ways to say things the writer means by "comprised of". "Composed of", "consists of", and "comprises" are subtly different. In sentences I edit, it often takes careful thought to decide just which one of these things the article should say. Thus the sentence with "comprised of" isn't quite as expressive.
  • Many writers use this phrase to aggrandize a sentence -- to intentionally make it longer and more sophisticated. In these, a simple "of", "is", or "have" often produces an easier to read sentence. (Example: "a team comprised of scientists" versus "a team of scientists").

Other commentators[edit]

Tim Ross gives another good explanation about what's incorrect about "comprised of" on his talk page, complete with references.

Paul Brian in his book Common Errors In English Usage recommends against using the phrase, while acknowledging some people don't mind it.

The Grammar Slammer editing tool by English Plus says the whole always comprises the parts.

Jack Lynch's Guide to Grammar and Style advises to avoid "is comprised of".

According to Dr Grammar's Frequently Asked Questions, "comprised of" is always wrong.

In August 2007, a Wikipedia Manual Of Style discussion covered this. This discussion includes rare advice from one Wikipedian to prefer "comprised of" — but only in preference to "comprises".

Jonathon Owen describes some research he did into historical usage. He also explains that "comprised of" is technically wrong, but says he has "given up" and accepts the phrase.

Arguments for "comprised of"[edit]

I know of only one argument actively for the use of "comprised of" instead of its various alternatives: elegant variation. Elegant variation is the idea of using multiple phrasings for the same thing in a piece of writing to avoid tiring the reader with repetition. Sports announcers are famous for using this as they use dozens of ways to say "beat" in running down a list of scores. So "comprised of" can be a useful variation in a paragraph that already uses all the alternatives. This argument is inapplicable, though, in something like an encyclopedia, where clarity is more important than euphony. Where clarity is important, it is important to use consistent terminology, so elegant variation is a bad thing.

I also have seen one argument that "comprised of" beats "comprises" in particular, because the latter is ambiguous. That ambiguity happens when you 1) admit another misuse of the verb "to comprise", and 2) use a plural where you shouldn't. In another case of "comprise" being used opposite of its natural sense, "to comprise" means to "constitute", as in "Three states comprise the Pacific Northwest." Using it that way, the phrase "phyla comprise classes" can mean either that phylum is above class in the taxonomy of living things or that class is above phylum. "phyla are comprised of classes" is unambiguous. But so is "a phylum comprises classes", which is also clearer.

I do know several arguments that "comprised of" is as good as the alternatives, and arguments that one shouldn't edit out the phrase from existing articles.

As we can see in a web search, there are a great number of people who are perfectly fine with "comprised of". In fact, many of them have never heard that there's a problem with it. Dictionaries list it.

The prevalence argument does very little for me -- I don't see grammar as a majority rule thing. The prevalence would have to be about 99% for me to accept it as valid (though still unfortunate) usage. Bear in mind that a great many people write "could of", yet few people who study the issue argue this is a Wikipedia-worthy way to say "could have".

The dictionary argument also fails to hit the mark, because the function of a dictionary isn't to tell you what is OK to use in any particular writing. It merely tells you what people mean when they do use a word.

Another rebuttal argument says that the incorrectness of "comprised of" is a thing of the past -- that English has evolved to include this new usage, as it evolved to accept "he goes" in place of "he goeth". This argument says people who don't accept "comprised of" just haven't got the word yet.

But "comprised of" is nowhere near that status, and it might never be. Webster's dictionary says the phrase has been in use since the 1700s, and it still hasn't managed to win over everyone. American Heritage notes that the fraction of its usage experts accepting the phrase has been trending upward in the past few decades, and an analysis of the Books Corpus in 2012 shows a distinct upward trend, but it still has a way to go before we can put it in the same class with "he goes".

The arguments for leaving "comprised of" alone often point out that my edits will not erase the phrase from the language, make people stop using it, or prevent its eventual evolution into undisputed correct English. I agree with all of that, and I don't see how it makes a difference. Those things have never been goals of mine.

Other arguments take the "waste of time" form. I won't offer a rebuttal of that, because an individual editor's allocation of his time shouldn't be anyone else's concern.

How people deal with the issue[edit]

Here, I'm not talking about how people deal with seeing the phrase or how they elect to write personally, but what people do when they have to make a policy for publication.

You know what my policy, for Wikipedia, is.

Another encyclopedia widely viewed as a standard of excellence for the genre is Encyclopedia Britannica. A search in June 2009 for the phrase "comprises three" turns up 65 hits. "is comprised of three" gets zero. So "Comprised of" is probably formally prohibited in that work.

I believe virtually all major English language newspapers have style guidelines that prohibit "comprised of", as do other edited publications.

Regional dialect[edit]

It has been suggested that "comprised of" is a regional thing, like the spelling of "color" or the phrase "figure out"/"work out". But I don't think there is any regional variation in the acceptability of the phrase — I think there are people who accept it and people who despise it in all regions.

It's easy to understand how this claim arises: when an Australian tells a Canadian that a phrase he has been using all his life is wrong, the easiest way for the Canadian to reconcile that is to conclude that the problem is unique to Australia. And it certainly ends an argument quickly — how many people are versed in the fine points of both Canadian and Australian English?

The point is really moot, though, because of two things: 1) readers from all over the world read Wikipedia, and wherever we can use a common language, we should. In spelling "color", we can't, but in using "comprise", we can. 2) Most of the arguments I make above for avoiding "comprised of" in Wikipedia are based not on how many people find the phrase discordant, but logic. Logic is the same in all regions.

But it is an interesting question nonetheless. One person from New Zealand told me that "comprised of" is not disputed in New Zealand. In May 2011, an anonymous editor wrote in Wiktionary that the objection to "comprised of" is only in "North American English" and that the phrase is fully accepted in "British English". In the year after that, several people referred me to that Wiktionary article as authority for that fact.

The only sources cited by Wiktionary were other more respected dictionaries, and I explained above what those dictionaries tell us. It is true that comparing the standard UK dictionary, Oxford, with the standard US ones, Webster's and American Heritage, one finds Oxford slightly more positive about "comprised of" than the other two. The only thing Oxford has negative to say about it is that that meaning is not the "primary" meaning of "comprise".

But I wanted some actual evidence of the anonymous Wiktionary claim, so I did a study of Wikipedia in June 2012. It was not extensive and there was plenty of room for error, but it indicated to my satisfaction that "comprised of" is not more accepted in British English. I edited the Wiktionary article to reflect that.

My study was as follows. I looked at several hundred random articles whose topic had special appeal to residents of some particular English speaking place. For example, an article about a highway in California is especially appealing to a resident of California. I divided those between the British Isles and everywhere else. The British Isles had 29%. I then made the same analysis of articles which contained the phrase "comprised of", either in its own text or in a quote or citation. (I excluded 35 articles about the New Jersey public school system, because they all contain a "comprised of" from the same source). The British Isles had 14% of the "comprised of" articles. The math indicates writers in that region are 2.5 times less likely than writers everywhere else to use the disputed phrase.

My subjective feeling that comes from years of editing Wikipedia is that the distribution of "comprised of" matches the distribution of speakers of English.

One area where I know from my work on Wikipedia "comprise" is more likely to be used in its reverse senses is articles about India. Those contain not only lots of "comprised of", but the even less accepted usages, "comprises of" and "yesterday it comprised of A, B, and C". However, I can't tell whether that indicates the reverse senses are generally accepted in India or there are just a lot of less skilled writers of English in India, where many writers speak another language primarily. The same articles typically are replete with other instances of irregular grammar that I've never heard of being accepted anywhere.

Motivation[edit]

I am one of the people who consider "comprised of" poor English. But that's not why I edit it out; I don't edit Wikipedia for personal taste. The fact that lots of other people feel the same way is what makes it seem like a good edit to me.

As one who subscribes to the anti-comprised-of doctrine described above, I can tell you it triggers the same "what an idiot" neurons in us as "could of" and "could care less". If I can spare any readers that discomfort without hurting anyone else, why wouldn't I?

Furthermore, many of us are not as sympathetic as I am to people who call "comprised of" OK. These readers may consider the occurrence of the phrase in Wikipedia as evidence that it is written by amateurs and not a respectable work.

Progress[edit]

I began systematically replacing "comprised of" in Wikipedia in December 2007. At that time, 11,700 articles contained the phrase. I edited about 140 a week through May 2010, totalling 18,000, and after that the number was 500. Through my work, I can tell that while lots of other editors make this edit, the number of edits they make is a small enough fraction of these numbers that we can ignore them in calculations.

From the math, it seems that roughly 60 new instances are created each week. Some of those are created by someone simply reverting my edit. Sampling I've done indicates about 2 edits a week get reverted.

Of the 500 in May 2010, 150 use the phrase in a quotation. Probably a few dozen more are in articles monitored by someone who rejects (by reversion) any attempt to remove the phrase. One of them actually contains a comment saying so. (I don't know the purpose of such a reversion, but the author of the aforementioned comment went so far as to tell me the purpose is not to improve the article).

Incidentally, in May 2010 there were 41,000 articles with "composed of", 88,000 with "consists of", and 24,000 with "comprises". So even if nobody had deliberately removed "comprised of" from articles, the numbers would still show it being a disfavored phrasing among Wikipedians.

By August 2010, I had removed every instance of "comprised of" (except the 150 or so in quotations) and entered a mode of editing the new occurrences as they were introduced.

How I edit[edit]

I search Wikipedia articles, templates, and categories for the phrase "comprised of" (with the quotes) using Wikipedia search.

Originally, I did this simply by typing the phrase in the search box. That gave me a page full of links to articles containing the phrase and I proceeded to edit them. I moved around (by specifying an "offset=" argument in the URL for the search) so as to avoid editing the same article over and over, in case someone saw fit to revert my edit.

But today, the number of articles containing the phrase is small enough that I need a better method for avoiding editing the same articles over and over. There are a small number of articles that are effectively owned by a person who takes personal offense at the edits. To mitigate the offense, this editor does a revenge reversion. I don't want to offend people or start a fight, so I try to concentrate on the articles which don't have such owners, which are the vast majority.

My current process involves a program that does the Wikipedia search (it just fetches the same URL as you fetch when you type in the Wikipedia search box) and compares the list to the previously fetched list. It selects only those articles that are not in the previous list and generates a web page linking to them, in alphabetical order. I browse that page and proceed to edit them in order. I edit about 100 articles a week this way, typically within two weeks of the article being created or edited to require it. Every six months or so, I throw away the history and start over, so I may repeat the same edit up to twice a year.

In any case, the actual editing is an intellectual process. I read the sentence and paragraph, understand what it's supposed to say, and choose a better wording. Sometimes I fix a few other things while I'm in the neighborhood.

Quotations[edit]

Where "comprised of" is within a quotation, it is arguably proper to change it to "composed of" or "comprises" unless the function of the quotation is to make a point about the speaker's grammar. This is akin to quoting a person in English who actually spoke in French. In fact, I have heard it argued that it is unfair to a source to quote his grammatical mistakes, since they stand out a lot more in a written quotation than they did when the person said it informally.

However, I don't normally edit "comprised of" in quotations. Where the phrase is not integral to the quote, I simply quote less and paraphrase more; encyclopedias are supposed to paraphrase more than excerpt anyway. Where the phrase containing "comprised of" is quote-worthy, I leave it in, but mark it with a {{sic}} tag to make sure future editors (especially me) realize it is a quote and don't edit it by accident. I use the hide=yes parameter so that the article doesn't say "sic" next to it because there's no reason the reader will suspect the phrase is an editing error.

here is an example edit

Alternative phrasing[edit]

There are many alternative phrasings that are universally accepted as proper English and good writing. Because the phrase has spread by use by less careful writers (a writer who went to the trouble to find out how to use it probably would have decided not to use it at all), it has many meanings. In fact, one of the advantages to avoiding "comprised of" is that an alternative is bound to be more precise.

composed of[edit]

Probably the best general-purpose replacement is "composed of". It fits almost any place you see "comprised of", though may not say exactly what the sentence wants to say.

Composing means putting together. When you say A is composed of B, C, and D you emphasize that B, C, and D are parts that come together to make A. A should not have any other parts than B, C, and D. There should be more than one part, and the sentence should simply list the parts, not describe how they go together.

Remember that "composition" and "component" are other forms of the word, so if you might use those words in discussing the subject, "composed of" is probably good.

"An ax is composed of a handle and a head."

"Tissue is composed of cells."

consists of[edit]

This is almost as good as "composed of" as a general-purpose replacement. It too fits almost any place you see "comprised of".

Consisting of something is a more abstract concept than being composed of. When A consists of B, C, and D, these parts are not necessarily distinct parts that are simply assembled. In fact, A can consist of just B. "Consists of" works as a fuzzy "is".

"Paint consists of various pigments suspended in a carrier."

"Comedy consists of making people laugh."

Where there are distinct and exhaustive components and the sentence does nothing but list them, "composed of" works better.

comprises[edit]

"Comprises" is arguably what earlier users of "is comprised of" were thinking of, being distracted by the similar phrase "is composed of" to end up at the hybrid.

"Comprises" works technically in most places, but the connotation is rather different from "is composed of" or "consists of". "Comprises" means "includes", but usually means exhaustive inclusion -- there aren't any other parts.

When A comprises B, C, and D, it's true that B, C, and D are the components of A, but the phrase emphasizes that A brings them together. B, C, and D should have some independent existence and not function merely as parts of this whole.

"The diocese comprises Johnson and Davis Counties" is good if there is no territory in the diocese other than Johnson and Davis Counties. Note that the counties are much more than divisions of a diocese; the diocese merely gathers them together for church purposes.

The most common things for which I use "comprises" are geographical boundaries, school sports leagues, and consortia of businesses and such.

"Comprises" can be used for uncountable things too, as in "The campus comprises 10 acres of woodland on the North side of the lake."

made up of[edit]

This works where you're listing ingredients, but they aren't distinct parts.

"Brass is made up of copper and zinc."

If someone actually made the thing, "made of" may be more expressive.

made of[edit]

This is for when someone actually put the parts together. In the same way that active voice supplies more information than passive, "made of" supplies more information than any phrasing that just describes the resulting composition.

"The tent is made of canvas and nylon."

divided into[edit]

This is the other side of "made of". When something started out whole and someone divided it into parts, "divided into" supplies more information than just describing the resulting composition.

"The agency is divided into twelve departments."

(But it depends upon the agency. Did someone actually divide up the agency, or did someone assemble pre-existing departments into an agency? "comprises" may make the point better).

is, has, of, etc.[edit]

Many times, an author considers "comprised of" in a deliberate attempt to make the sentence longer and more complex. This is supposed to lend a mood of intelligence or sophistication to the sentence. In technical writing, such as in an encylopedia, ease of comprehension is far more important than mood, so a simpler sentence is better, and simple words such as "is" and "has" make the point just fine.

"The dwelling is comprised of a brick house." ⇒ "The dwelling is a brick house."

"The committee is comprised of five members" ⇒ "The committee has five members".

"a team comprised of scientists" ⇒ "a team of scientists"

Refer to the parts instead of the composition[edit]

The mind is constructed in such a way that we understand a sentence most easily when it forms a picture in our head — a picture of things acting on other things. It is far easier to form a picture of something concrete like a rock than something abstract like geology. It is also easier to picture one item, like a tree, than to picture a gestalt collection of items, like a forest.

So a student is easier to picture than a student body:

"The student body is comprised of residents of Centerville." ⇒ "The students are from Centerville."

A band member is easier to picture than a band:

"The band is comprised of John, Mary, and Bob." ⇒ "The members of the band are John, Mary, and Bob."

A resident is easier to picture than a population:

"The population is comprised of former New Yorkers." ⇒ "The residents are former New Yorkers."

"Comprises of"[edit]

There is a related problematic phrase, "to comprise of" (and its various forms). Like "is comprised of", this is a mishearing of two phrases which mean about the same thing: "to consist of" and "to comprise". But this phrasing is far less accepted than "comprised of". No major dictionary even acknowledges the usage.

I have found this especially prevalent in articles about India and articles rife with other syntax errors.