Taking a Grammar Pet Peeve to a New Level

grammarpolice2

A lot of us have grammar or spelling errors that we just can’t stand.  Bryan Henderson has this issue, too. But unlike most of us, he’s taken matters into his own hands.

Henderson is a Wikipedia editor. These aren’t paid employees, but devoted site proofreaders who make edits so that an article is comprehensible and as error-free as possible.  Henderson says that after eight years, he’s gotten so proficient at Wikipedia proofreading that it only takes him 10 seconds to scan and fix the average entry.

That may seem inconceivable, until you understand what kind of “editing” he’s doing. Using software he’s developed, he hunts down articles that contain his grammatical pet peeve, and edits that phrase – and only that phrase.

If I write: My favorite sandwich is comprised of tomato, prosciutto, and fresh mozzarella, would you be able to spot the grammar error?   Or would you just be hungry – because that is a really awesome sandwich?  Well, if you’re in the latter group, the grammatical error is “comprised of”.  I’ll let Henderson explain, via his incredibly long and detailed Wikipedia entry on the subject:

The argument goes that “to comprise” means to include, as in “The 9th district comprises all of Centerville and parts of Easton and Weston.” Thus, “the 9th district is comprised of …” is gibberish.

The reason for this common mistake is probably because “comprised” sounds like and has a similar meaning to “composed”, which is used with “of” in this context.

In addition to being against “comprised of” from a grammatical standpoint, Henderson also argues that its usage is often incorrect, pointing out that “comprised”, “composed of”, and “consisting of” are “subtly different”.

It’s the kind of error that some might shrug at; language is an evolving thing, and this usage is so common now, that it will probably be accepted within the next few decades.  But Henderson’s mad as hell about the consistent misuse of “comprise”, and he’s not going to take it!

He’s gone through countless Wikipedia articles and corrected the phrase – giving him an estimated 47,000 edits under his belt, and counting.  But it doesn’t stop there.  He completely replaces it with another word or  phrase, like “composed of”. This has caused some complaints among other Wikipedia editors over the years, but Henderson keeps on going, with the conviction of the righteous.

It seems kind of silly to make such a thing a major part of your life. And yet, when I think about how mad I get when someone opts not to use an Oxford comma (and that’s not even an error!), I kind of admire Henderson’s quest.  And, while he seems to think what he’s doing is meaningless in the grand scheme of things, that may actually be an error. Wikipedia is the internet’s 6th most-visited website.  If “comprised of” is gradually being erased from its articles, it may mean that it’s coming less and less to many visitors’ minds, and, thus, into their own writing and speech. This isn’t likely to erase the phrase from the face of the earth, of course, but Henderson gets an “A” for effort!

What about you?  Is there a grammar or spelling mistake that drives you bonkers?  Even so, if you could, would you try to get rid of it, or would you let language do its thing and hope for the best?

by Alysa Salzberg

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