A heated war has broken out between the guardians of English and those who believe “anything goes” when it comes to how the language is used.
The dispute was sparked by a news report featuring a ‘pedant’, as the ‘anything goes’ camp would label him, called Bryan Henderson. According to the report, Mr Henderson, a Wikipedia editor, has spent six years removing 47,000 references to “comprised of” from the online encyclopaedia. He thinks the phrase is ungrammatical.
At this point, I need to declare an interest. I fall into the ‘pedantry’ camp.
Family meals in my household are often interrupted by my correcting family members who use “less” instead of “fewer”. I drive my family mad.
It also drives me mad when I’m confronted by the linguistic curse that’s crept up on us in recent years, namely “myself” instead of “me”. This has now reached epidemic proportions.
I think the English language is far too valuable to be distorted by laziness. Yes, the language can change, but its misuse can distort the meaning of what you are trying to say.
The most authoritative explanation I’ve read for why it should be “comprises” rather than “comprised of” came from language expert Guy Keleny in The Independent. He wrote:
“Comprise” is a French word that entered the English language in the 17th century. The root meaning is “take together”. It follows that the whole comprises the parts, not the parts the whole. For instance, a pancake batter comprises – takes together – eggs, flour, milk and salt: those ingredients do not “comprise” the batter. So, the batter is not “comprised of” them.
That nails it.
However, there’s an even more serious way in which the verb “comprise” is being misused – and that’s “comprise of” and “comprising of”. These are totally ungrammatical.
The guiltiest perpetrators of this grammatical howler are estate agents.
In their blurb on a house they’re trying sell, estate agents often write: “This stunning (or any other extravagant adjective you can think of) property comprises of four bedrooms…” No it doesn’t. The house “comprises four bedrooms”. Or, it’s a house “comprising four bedrooms” – not “comprising of”.
Do a trawl of estate agents’ websites and you’ll come up with hundreds of instances where this howler can be found. If there were an International Linguistic Crimes Court in The Hague, estate agents would be the first to be hauled into the dock.
The correct use of words like “comprise” was driven into me on the excellent BBC News Training scheme that I joined after university. Two brilliant trainers, Keith Clark and Eric Stadlen, took no prisoners when it came to we young journalists not writing properly. Any linguistic lapses by my colleagues and me were – rightly – corrected in such a way that you would never make the same mistake again. Aside from “comprise”, other examples of language misuse I shall never forget and hope never to repeat are:
“Evacuate” – as in “Emergency teams arrived in the village worst affected by the earthquake and five thousand people were evacuated”. No they weren’t – not unless a mass enema was carried out.
“Hopefully” – as in “England manager Roy Hodgson says England will hopefully win the next World Cup”, which means “Roy Hodgson says England will win the next World Cup while being full of hope” – as opposed to “Roy Hodgson hopes England will win the next World Cup”.
“Effectively – as in “Lewis Hamilton effectively clinched this year’s Formula 1 championship by winning today’s penultimate Grand Prix” – as opposed to the correct version, “Lewis Hamilton will in effect win this year’s Formula 1 championship…”
At this point I have to own up to a howler of my own – one that scarred me for life.
This was a misplaced ‘only’.
It occurred in a report I filed for the BBC’s “From Our Own Correspondent” while based in Johannesburg. I can’t recall the exact gaffe I committed but it was something like:
“Today, anti-apartheid protesters only staged demonstrations in Soweto”.
Within seconds of filing the report my phone rang and on the line from London was the legendary editor of FOOC (as the programme’s known) at that time Paddy O’Keeffe. She would have rebuked me along the lines of:
“What you’re saying is ‘the protesters only staged demonstrations in Soweto’ as opposed to also rioting or attacking the security forces. What you should have said was ‘Protesters staged demonstrators only in Soweto’.”
In order that the flow of my broadcast should not be interrupted by inserting a reworked single sentence, Paddy insisted I record the whole four-and-a-half minute broadcast again.
I’ve never misplaced an ‘only’ since – at least I hope not. I’ve been eternally grateful to those editors, under whom I worked, who left me feeling humiliated after committing such errors.
Indeed, if there are any fellow-pedants out there who spot a grammatical mistake in this blog, feel free to comment – or, indeed, arrange to have me summoned to The Hague!