Arrant Pedantry

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Comprised of Fail

A few days ago on Twitter, John McIntyre wrote, “A reporter has used ‘comprises’ correctly. I feel giddy.” And a couple of weeks ago, Nancy Friedman tweeted, “Just read ‘is comprised of’ in a university’s annual report. I give up.” I’ve heard editors confess that they can never remember how to use comprise correctly and always have to look it up. And recently I spotted a really bizarre use in Wired, complete with a subject-verb agreement problem: “It is in fact a Meson (which comprise of a quark and an anti-quark). “So what’s wrong with this word that makes it so hard to get right?

I did a project on “comprised of” for my class last semester on historical changes in American English, and even though I knew it was becoming increasingly common even in edited writing, I was still surprised to see the numbers. For those unfamiliar with the rule, it’s actually pretty simple: the whole comprises the parts, and the parts compose the whole. This makes the two words reciprocal antonyms, meaning that they describe opposite sides of a relationship, like buy/sell or teach/learn. Another way to look at it is that comprise essentially means “to be composed of,” while “compose” means “to be comprised in” (note: in, not of). But increasingly, comprise is being used not as an antonym for compose, but as a synonym.

It’s not hard to see why it’s happened. They’re extremely similar in sound, and each is equivalent to the passive form of the other. When “comprises” means the same thing as “is composed of,” it’s almost inevitable that some people are going to conflate the two and produce “is comprised of.” According to the rule, any instance of “comprised of” is an error that should probably be replaced with “composed of.” Regardless of the rule, this usage has risen sharply in recent decades, though it’s still dwarfed by “composed of.” (Though “composed of” appears to be in serious decline. I have no idea why). The following chart shows its frequency in COHA and the Google Books Corpus.

frequency of "comprised of" and "composed of" in COHA and Google Books

Though it still looks pretty small on the chart, “comprised of” now occurs anywhere from 21 percent as often as “composed of” (in magazines) to a whopping 63 percent as often (in speech) according to COCA. (It’s worth noting, of course, that the speech genre in COCA is composed of a lot of news and radio show transcripts, so even though it’s unscripted, it’s not exactly reflective of typical speech.)

frequency of "comprised of" by genre

What I find most striking about this graph is the frequency of “comprised of” in academic writing. It is often held that standard English is the variety of English used by the educated elite, especially in writing. In this case, though, academics are leading the charge in the spread of a nonstandard usage. Like it or not, it’s becoming increasingly more common, and the prestige lent to it by its academic feel is certainly a factor.

But it’s not just “comprised of” that’s the problem; remember that the whole comprises the parts, which means that comprise should be used with singular subjects and plural objects (or multiple subjects with multiple respective objects, as in The fifty states comprise some 3,143 counties; each individual state comprises many counties). So according to the rule, not only is The United States is comprised of fifty states an error, but so is The fifty states comprise the United States.

It can start to get fuzzy, though, when either the subject or the object is a mass or collective noun, as in “youngsters comprise 17% of the continent’s workforce,” to take an example from Mark Davies’ COCA. This kind of error may be harder to catch, because the relationship between parts and whole is a little more abstract.

And with all the data above, it’s important to remember that we’re seeing things that have made it into print. As I said above, many editors have to look up the rule every time they encounter a form of “comprise” in print, meaning that they’re more liable to make mistakes. It’s possible that many more editors don’t even know that there is a rule, and so they read past it without a second thought.

Personally, I gave up on the rule a few years ago when one day it struck me that I couldn’t recall the last time I’d seen it used correctly in my editing. It’s never truly ambiguous (though if you can find an ambiguous example that doesn’t require willful misreading, please share), and it’s safe to assume that if nearly all of our authors who use comprise do so incorrectly, then most of our readers probably won’t notice, because they think that’s the correct usage.

And who’s to say it isn’t correct now? When it’s used so frequently, especially by highly literate and highly educated writers and speakers, I think you have to recognize that the rule has changed. To insist that it’s always an error, no matter how many people use it, is to deny the facts of usage. Good usage has to have some basis in reality; it can’t be grounded only in the ipse dixits of self-styled usage authorities.

And of course, it’s worth noting that the “traditional” meaning of comprise is really just one in a long series of loosely related meanings the word has had since it was first borrowed into English from French in the 1400s, including “to seize,” “to perceive or comprehend,” “to bring together,” and “to hold.” Perhaps the new meaning of “compose” (which in reality is over two hundred years old at this point) is just another step in the evolution of the word.

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More on That

As I said in my last post, I don’t think the distribution of that and which is adequately explained by the restrictive/nonrestrictive distinction. It’s true that nearly all thats are restrictive (with a few rare exceptions), but it’s not true that all restrictive relative pronouns are thats and that all whiches are nonrestrictive, even when you follow the traditional rule. In some cases that is strictly forbidden, and in other cases it is disfavored to varying degrees. Something that linguistics has taught me is that when your rule is riddled with exceptions and wrinkles, it’s usually sign that you’ve missed something important in your analysis.

In researching the topic for this post, I’ve learned a couple of things: (1) I don’t know syntax as well as I should, and (2) the behavior of relatives in English, particularly that, is far more complex than most editors or pop grammarians realize. First of all, there’s apparently been a century-long argument over whether that is even a relative pronoun or actually some sort of relativizing conjunction or particle. (Some linguists seem to prefer the latter, but I won’t wade too deep into that debate.) Previous studies have looked at multiple factors to explain the variation in relativizers, including the animacy of the referent, the distance between the pronoun and its referent, the semantic role of the relative clause, and the syntactic role of the referent.

It’s often noted that that can’t follow a preposition and that it doesn’t have a genitive form of its own (it must use either whose or of which), but no usage guide I’ve seen ever makes mention of the fact that this pattern follows the accessibility hierarchy. That is, in a cross-linguistic analysis, linguists have found an order to the way in which relative clauses are formed. Some languages can only relativize subjects, others can do subjects and verbal objects, yet others can do subjects, verbal objects, and oblique objects (like the objects of prepositions), and so on. For any allowable position on the hierarchy, all positions to the left are also allowable. The hierarchy goes something like this:

subject ≥ direct object ≥ indirect object ≥ object of stranded preposition ≥ object of fronted preposition ≥ possessor noun phrase ≥ object of comparative particle

What is interesting is that that and the wh- relatives, who and which, occupy overlapping but different portions of the hierarchy. Who and which can relativize anything from subjects to possessors and possibly objects of comparative particles, though whose as the genitive form of which seems a little odd to some, and both sound odd if not outright ungrammatical with comparatives, as in The man than who I’m taller. But that can’t relativize objects of fronted prepositions or anything further down the scale.

Strangely, though, there are things that that can do that who and which can’t. That can sometimes function as a sort of relative adverb, equivalent to the relative adverbs why, where, or when or to which with a preposition. That is, you can say The day that we met, The day when we met, or The day on which we met, but not The day which we met. And which can relativize whole clauses (though some sticklers consider this ungrammatical), while that cannot, as in This author uses restrictive “which,” which bothers me a lot.

So what explains the differences between that and which or who? Well, as I mentioned above, some linguists consider that not a pronoun but a complementizer or conjunction (perhaps a highly pronominal one), making it more akin to the complementizer that, as in He said that relativizers were confusing. And some linguists have also proposed different syntactic structures for restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses, which could account for the limitation of that to restrictive clauses. If that is not a true pronoun but a complementizer, then that could account for its strange distribution. It can’t appear in nonrestrictive clauses, because they require a full pronoun like which or who, and it can’t appear after prepositions, because those constructions similarly require a pronoun. But it can function as a relative adverb, which a regular relative pronoun can’t do.

As I argued in my previous post, it seems that which and that do not occupy separate parts of a single paradigm but are part of two different paradigms that overlap. The differences between them can be characterized in a few different ways, but for some reason, grammarians have seized on the restrictive/nonrestrictive distinction and have written off the rest as idiosyncratic exceptions to the rule or as common errors (when they’ve addressed those points at all).

The proposal to disallow which in restrictive relative clauses, except in the cases where that is ungrammatical—sometimes called Fowler’s rule, though that’s not entirely accurate—is based on the rather trivial observation that all thats are restrictive and that all nonrestrictives are which. It then assumes that the converse is true (or should be) and tries to force all restrictives to be that and all whiches to be nonrestrictive (except for all those pesky exceptions, of course).

Garner calls Fowler’s rule “nothing short of brilliant,”[1] but I must disagree. It’s based on a rather facile analysis followed by some terrible logical leaps. And insisting on following a rule based on bad linguistic analysis is not only not helpful to the reader, it’s a waste of editors’ time. As my last post shows, editors have obviously worked very hard to put the rule into practice, but this is not evidence of its utility, let alone its brilliance. But a linguistic analysis that could account for all of the various differences between the two systems of relativization in English? Now that just might be brilliant.

Sources

Herbert F. W. Stahlke, “Which That,” Language 52, no. 3 (Sept. 1976): 584–610
Johan Van Der Auwera, “Relative That: A Centennial Dispute,” Journal of Lingusitics 21, no. 1 (March 1985): 149–79
Gregory R. Guy and Robert Bayley, “On the Choice of Relative Pronouns in English,” American Speech 70, no. 2 (Summer 1995): 148–62
Nigel Fabb, “The Difference between English Restrictive and Nonrestrictive Relative Clauses,” Journal of Linguistics 26, no. 1 (March 1990): 57–77
Robert D. Borsley, “More on the Difference between English Restrictive and Nonrestrictive Relative Clauses,” Journal of Linguistics 28, no. 1 (March 1992), 139–48

  1. [1] Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3rd ed., s.v. “that. A. And which.”
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