An editor’s lonely fight against an ugly error

Hendrson

Wikipedia

This is Wikipedia editor extraordinaire Bryan Henderson. He doesn’t look heoric, we know, but in the world of grammatical nitpickers he is something of a god among men.

I have a new hero.

His name is Bryan Henderson and he is a 51-year-old software engineer from San Jose, California. On Wikipedia, where he is one of thousands of volunteer editors, he is known by the pseudonym “Giraffedata.”

Kemmick

Ed Kemmick

When news of his editing labors went public early this year, it was reported that he had made 47,000 edits to the popular online encyclopedia over the past decade. That number of edits was hardly extraordinary. But this was: Nearly every single edit was made to wipe out the phrase comprised of.

If you don’t understand why, Henderson probably is not going to be a hero of yours. Simply put, comprised of is a barbarism, an ugly mistake that irritates the hell out of people who know it is wrong.

I have been in that camp since my days at the School of Journalism at the University of Montana. I don’t recall which professor there first pointed the mistake out to us, but all of them took turns condemning it. I mentioned this in a column a few years ago. After listing several other unforgivable mistakes, I wrote: “and God help the student unwary enough to confuse ‘compose’ with ‘comprise.’”

One professor gave us an easy way to remember the difference: think of comprise as having the same meaning as embrace. You could say a jury is composed of or is made up of 12 jurors, but you couldn’t say a jury is comprised of 12 jurors, any more than you could say it is embraced of 12 jurors.

I don’t know where Henderson picked up his strong aversion to this common mistake. He might have said somewhere in the 6,000-word essay he posted on Wikipedia to explain his admirable but slightly insane quest. I confess that I did not read the whole thing.

I suppose it doesn’t matter. The point is that he hates the mistake so thoroughly that he has spent hundreds of hours manually correcting tens of thousands of Wikipedia articles. He does not use search-and-replace tools because he wants the corrections to be just right—which means replacing comprised of sometimes with consists of, sometimes with composed of, sometimes with made up of, etc. On some occasions, the phrase is simply eliminated: a group of researchers instead of a group comprised of researchers.

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You have to be a little eccentric to wage a war on behalf of a concept most people don’t even understand. This was the case with the two retired gentlemen in Oregon I wrote about many years ago. They were so outraged when Albertson’s Inc. changed its name to Albertsons Inc. that they formed the American Apostrophe Society to defend that humble punctuation mark.

One of those gentlemen also spoke wistfully about the disappearing distinction between lie and lay, a distinction, if I may say so without sounding mean-spirited, that I wish the writers and editors of the Billings Gazette would take the trouble to learn.

If it were possible to go into the online archives of the Gazette in the same way that Henderson has been working his way through Wikipedia, I would make a hobby of eliminating that mistake.

For that matter, I would love to go back to 1982, when I was working in the Anaconda Bureau of the Montana Standard and used collaborate when I meant to write corroborate. It still pains me to think of it.

It is likewise painful to recall how I once, as an editor in St. Paul, changed a freelance writer’s just deserts to just desserts. Yes, I not only made that bush-league mistake, I tampered with another person’s story in order to make it. That freelancer, a very bright woman, fairly seethed with disrespect every time I saw her for years after that.

These days, one of my pet peeves is seeing periods and commas outside of quotation marks. In Henderson’s long essay on comprised of, he wrote: “I believe virtually all major English language newspapers have style guidelines that prohibit ‘comprised of’, as do other edited publications.”

I understand what he’s thinking there, I think: that the comma is not part of the prohibited phrase, so it shouldn’t go inside the quotation marks. Trouble is, he’s wrong. That usage is correct in British English, but it is flat-out wrong in American English. In my mind it is a barbarism as hideous as comprised of.

Take my word for it: In this country the comma and the period go inside the quotation marks. That is not always the case with other punctuation marks, but let’s not try to remember too much in one day.

Could I mention one more pet peeve, making a pitiful, hopeless stand in the style of Henderson?

When my children were younger, all of them at one time or another said on accident instead of the proper by accident. I thought it was some quirky familial thing then, or something in the air on Avenue C, but now I hear it all the time, almost exclusively from the mouths of people 35 and younger, and I have even seen it in print.

It is wrong only because it is wrong. There is no universal rule governing the choice of prepositions. In England it is “right” to say cater for, something you never hear in America, because cater to is right, right?

Which means it is a matter of customary usage. Which means that even in my lifetime, when those people under 35 are older and all their offspring are saying on accident, a majority of my fellow citizens will think—no, they will be certain—that I am wrong in saying by accident.

It is enough to make me lose the wits of which my brain is comprised of.

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