Can 50,000 Wikipedia edits be wrong?

« previous post | next post »

Or alternatively, were 50,000 Wikipedia word choices actually errors to start with? Andrew McMillen, “Meet the Ultimate WikiGnome: One Man’s Quest to Rid Wikipedia of Exactly One Grammatical Mistake“, Medium 2/3/2015:

On a Friday in July 2012, two employees of the Wikimedia Foundation gave a talk at Wikimania, their organization’s annual conference. Maryana Pinchuk and Steven Walling addressed a packed room as they answered a question that has likely popped into the minds of even the most casual users of Wikipedia: who the hell edits the site, and why do they do it?  

Pinchuk and Walling conducted hundreds of interviews to find out. They learned that many serious contributors have an independent streak and thrive off the opportunity to work on any topic they like. Other prolific editors highlight the encyclopedia’s huge global audience or say they derive satisfaction from feeling that their work is of use to someone, no matter how arcane their interests. Then Walling lands on a slide entitled, ‘perfectionism.’ The bespectacled young man pauses, frowning.  

“I feel sometimes that this motivation feels a little bit fuzzy, or a little bit negative in some ways… Like, one of my favorite Wikipedians of all time is this user called Giraffedata,” he says. “He has, like, 15,000 edits, and he’s done almost nothing except fix the incorrect use of ‘comprised of’ in articles.”

Not everyone has accepted Giraffedata’s opinion about this usage:

On 15 June, 2009, an editor left a comment on the ‘Talk’ page of Jimmy Wales, a founder of the encyclopedia. Entitled ‘Intercession needed,’ the writer began: “Please refer to user Talk:Giraffedata. Even though numerous editors have objected to his obsessive removal of the gramatically [sic] acceptable term ‘comprised of’ from hundreds of articles, he defiantly continues to do so. Your assistance here is appreciated.”  

Wales replied later that day: “I believe that Giraffedata’s arguments against our using it are persuasive,” though he abstained from passing further judgment.

And McMillen is also a convert:

As a stickler for correct grammar, I am appalled at the thought of incorrect English in my published work. So in March 2014, I thanked Henderson for saving me from further embarrassment by awarding him an ‘Original Barnstar.’ “You’re a legend, Bryan,” I wrote on his ‘Talk’ page. “Thanks for correcting my semi-regular use of ‘comprised of.’ Never again will I use it!”

It’s fitting, I suppose, that this incorrection is a perfect example of what I once called “Counterfeit Cultural Capital” (6/11/2011): the animus against comprise in the sense of  “compose, make up” is an invented shibboleth. (See also “More on the history of comprised of meaning ‘composed of’“, 6/6/2011.) Both  active and passive forms have been used in this sense for hundreds of years, and continue in widespread use to the present day, thereby given Mr. Henderson plenty of opportunity to exercise his obsession (now apparently approaching 50,000 Wikipedia edits).

It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Mr. McMillen to check the issue out in the Oxford English Dictionary or in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, or for that matter in literary history, where he might have appreciated the opportunity to correct Thomas Hardy (The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion):

The serial makes no mention of ‘a mourning coach’, shows the condemned men accompanied by ‘a clergyman’ not ‘two priests’, and has a firing-party comprised of only twelve men.

And also Charles Dickens (Hard Times), since if the whole cannot be comprised of the parts, neither can the parts comprise the whole:

These observations comprise the whole of the case.

Herman Melville must also be edited (Moby-Dick):

Nor do heroes, saints, demigods, and prophets alone comprise  the whole roll of our order.

And (Mardi and a Voyage Thither):

These here and  there fell into the lagoon, forming many isles, now green  and luxuriant; which, with those sprouting from seeds  dropped by a bird from the moon, comprise all the groups  in the reef.

And there a more difficult task facing Mr. Henderson: The U.S. Code apparently includes some 1,880 instances of “comprised of”, and changing them will require many acts of Congress…

And the texts of court decisions contain another few hundred thousand examples — for example, from a 2011 decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit:

A prospective new political party and its slate of candidates secure ballot access by filing with the Arkansas Secretary of State a petition comprised of the signatures of any 10,000 registered Arkansas voters collected in a ninety-day period.

I’m not the first to notice that Henderson’s jihad is based on false premises: see David Shariatmadari, “Why Wikipedia’s grammar vigilante is wrong“, The Guardian 2/5/2015.

Update — Geoff Nunberg writes to inform me that my Thomas Hardy quotation was actually from an editor’s footnote, and thus not written by Hardy himself. But he adds:

We can, however, add Lionel Trilling, Christopher HitchensHarold Bloom, Bertrand Russell, and Alfred North Whitehead to the list of abusers.

 Update #2: Geoff’s Fresh Air piece on the subject suggests, I think correctly, that comprised of is not really a passive, but rather is one of those odd forms like possessed of — but Geoff goes wrong in using the example “She’s possessed of a mischievous spirit”, which seems like it might be a mistake for “possessed by”, which would be a passive. Brian Garner (p. 644 of the 2009 edition of Modern American Usage) gets this one right:



62 Comments

  1. Daniel said,

    February 8, 2015 @ 1:48 pm

    I think the title itself raises an interesting question: “Can 50,000 Wikipedia edits be wrong?”

    In other words, even if ‘comprised of’ was incorrect in the past, why shouldn’t 50,000 uses of it be sufficient to indicate an extension of the meaning of ‘comprised’? As Shariatmadari points out, repeated error can become tomorrow’s standard usage. What kind of sample sizes do we need for such a transition?

  2. Jonathon Owen said,

    February 8, 2015 @ 2:38 pm

    Giraffedata’s user page links to this old post of mine on the subject, but apparently he didn’t find it persuasive enough to dissuade him from his quest. All he seems to have gotten out of it is that “comprised of” is technically wrong but that I’ve given up on it.

    What I find most interesting is that “comprised of” appears most frequently (both in raw numbers and as a percentage of use) in academic writing, which in many ways is quintessential Standard English—it’s edited, formal writing by educated speakers. If Standard English is based on the usage of educated speakers in formal situations, especially in writing, then doesn’t this show that “comprised of” is perfectly standard?

    Of course, the big problem with his edits is that they seem to assume that grammar is based on a set of logically prior premises from which the rules can be deduced. His argument basically reduces to “it’s illogical and unnecessary.” But the question is, how do you know that “comprise” can’t be used this way? For most people, the answer seems to be “Because so-and-so says it can’t.” But then that just begs the question, how do they know? How do you know that their opinion is valid?

    I have yet to hear an answer to these questions that doesn’t reduce to an ipse dixit.

  3. Tom S. Fox said,

    February 8, 2015 @ 3:00 pm

    How did you get the words “problem” and “omission” mixed up?

  4. David Marjanović said,

    February 8, 2015 @ 4:18 pm

    in academic writing, which in many ways is quintessential Standard English—it’s edited

    Many scientific journals are not edited at all. And yes, it shows in several ways.

  5. David Morris said,

    February 8, 2015 @ 4:42 pm

    At least it stops him from doing something genuinely malicious, whether on Wikipedia or elsewhere. Conversely, it also stops him from doing something genuinely beneficial.

  6. Hugo said,

    February 8, 2015 @ 5:07 pm

    Giraffedata aka Bryan Henderson was interviewed briefly on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday morning and said he had originally looked it up in the dictionary, but didn’t say which one informed his edits.

    The linked article also says:

    > He was surprised, however, to find in the first three months that some people disagreed with his edit, sometimes vehemently. “When the first few people said, ‘Why did you do this?’ I said, ‘Well, it’s not grammatical. It’s not English at all.’ And then finally somebody came and said, ‘You jerk, it’s a matter of opinion! It’s completely valid, I looked it up in my dictionary! You have no right to mess with my article!’” Henderson laughs. “That came as quite a surprise.”

  7. Lance Nathan said,

    February 8, 2015 @ 6:17 pm

    And then finally somebody came and said, ‘You jerk, it’s a matter of opinion! It’s completely valid, I looked it up in my dictionary! You have no right to mess with my article!’” Henderson laughs.

    So he knew it was annoying people, but he kept doing it. There are a number of words for that sort of person, but I think my preferred term is “asshole”. (Of course, he wasn’t doing it just to annoy people; he thought he was right and they were wrong. In light of that, “righteous asshole” may be more appropriate.)

  8. Chris C. said,

    February 8, 2015 @ 7:38 pm

    @Lance — Yes, there are many assholes on Wikipedia, righteous and otherwise. They’re the major reason I stopped actively editing, some years ago.

  9. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 8, 2015 @ 7:40 pm

    Lance Nathan: I suspect that calling someone an asshole annoys some people. You seem to do it anyway.

  10. djw said,

    February 8, 2015 @ 8:04 pm

    I had a student in an ESL class once who had used “comprised” correctly in a paper for another class, but the instructor had patiently explained to her that the correct phrase was “comprised of.” The student brought me her paper and her dictionary and asked me to help her understand. Only answer I could come up with? “It’s Texas!” (I wasn’t surprised that the other instructor habitually used “comprised of,” but I was a little stunned that an ESL instructor didn’t seem to recognize that “comprised” had meaning all by itself and had insisted that the student was wrong even in the face of a good dictionary.)

  11. Tim said,

    February 8, 2015 @ 8:27 pm

    Sounds like a waste of one’s life tantamount to “correcting” thousands of split infinitives.

  12. Jonathon Owen said,

    February 8, 2015 @ 10:28 pm

    Many scientific journals are not edited at all. And yes, it shows in several ways.

    True, but many definitions of Standard English mention the fact that it’s a variety used by educated speakers especially in formal written situations. It just goes to show that while people think of Standard English being educated English, what they really mean is that it’s edited English. The two aren’t exactly synonymous.

  13. Eric P Smith said,

    February 8, 2015 @ 10:41 pm

    I don’t think Bryan Henderson does any harm. Indeed, on balance, he may be doing a slight good. “Comprised of” may indeed nowadays be “semi-regular”, but it nevertheless annoys a lot of people, while the fully regular usage with which Henderson replaces it annoys no-one as far as I am aware. Leave him alone.

  14. DMT said,

    February 9, 2015 @ 12:04 am

    “if the whole cannot be comprised of the parts, neither can the parts comprise the whole”

    This part of the argument seems wrong to me. There would be no inconsistency in claiming that the Dickens and Melville sentences are grammatical while the Hardy sentence is ungrammatical.

  15. Jeff W said,

    February 9, 2015 @ 12:08 am

    …it nevertheless annoys a lot of people, while the fully regular usage with which Henderson replaces it annoys no-one as far as I am aware

    That was sort of my view also.

    The usage that Henderson advocates is the usage least likely to raise questions among those who might raise those questions and it won’t raise questions for anyone else. (That’s with regard to Wikipedia articles as they stand—he’s, apparently, annoying the heck out of some of the contributors whose articles he’s editing.) It’s not, really, an issue of being right or wrong (although Henderson himself frames it that way)—it’s about keeping (some) readers from stumbling over some other usage.

  16. Martin J Ball said,

    February 9, 2015 @ 12:39 am

    Interesting no-one has mentioned British English ‘estate agent’ language, where a present tense “comprises of” is common: ‘the property comprises of 4 bedrooms, …”

  17. JS said,

    February 9, 2015 @ 1:07 am

    Wow — so many LL commenters equating the calling out of an egregious troll with said egregious troll’s egregious trolling?

    That aside, can those supporting Henderson here reflect on their support for the idea of 100% consistency in usage across English Wikipedia, describe for those of us not so affected the apparently acute discomfort of encountering a wording or spelling they themselves would not have selected, and suggest other cases where we might write automated software to quickly identify thus to modify all the hundreds, thousands, or hundreds of thousands of Wiki-violations? While arguably fascist in mindset, such methods are justifiable in light of the ultimate goal of minimizing the average reader’s likelihood of feeling “annoyed.”

  18. Diane said,

    February 9, 2015 @ 2:01 am

    Wow, I did not know anyone considered “comprised of” to be wrong. I am a scientific editor who typically edits biomedical research papers written by non-native speakers. I change wording TO “comprised of” all the time (no, I don’t change “comprise” to “comprised of”; usually it’s “included” that I’m changing, because “included” leaves open the possibility that a given list is not exhaustive, whereas “comprised ” doesn’t.)

    A bit of googling tells me that this usage is common in the scientific literature, but not outside it. But since I spend a lot of time reading the scientific literature, my intuition is that “comprised of” is fine, and so I would be irritated as hell if someone changed it.

    So I am no fan of this giraffedata clown.

  19. Diane said,

    February 9, 2015 @ 2:14 am

    I would add that one thing I have learned in editing is that you don’t change wording that can be plausibly defended as acceptable English, even if not everyone accepts it, and even if it annoys you. It really pisses people off when you make changes to their writing for questionable reasons. They have the right to choose minority usages, even if it grates on you.

  20. the other Mark P said,

    February 9, 2015 @ 3:04 am

    A bit of googling tells me that this usage is common in the scientific literature, but not outside it.

    I used to be a patent officer, and “comprised of” was the standard way of listing ingredients which included the option to include other ingredients but without insisting on them.

    http://www.patenthawk.com/blog/2007/09/comprised_of_counterfeit.html

    Other alternatives, likes “consists of” would never be used, as they exclude the possibility of even minute additions of other ingredients, such a colouring.

    Our demon Wiki-editor is therefore just plain wrong, because he ignores the small exceptions.

    “The Wikipedia editorial community is composed of many interesting people.” is wrong, because I know one of them, and he isn’t interesting. His name is Henderson, and he is the most boring person I know, as he only does one thing on Wikipedia.

    “The Wikipedia editorial community is comprised of many interesting people.” is correct, because one of them is not interesting.

    “Completely improvisational in nature, the band is comprised of a bassist, two rappers, three members poking at laptops, and, occasionally, a singer.”

    Wrong the moment someone else was in the band even for a moment. Whereas “comprised of” allows for another person from time to time.

    The officious prick is on a crusade to be as wrong as possible, as often as possible, by allowing no exceptions in any list. Why would you do that?

  21. Diane said,

    February 9, 2015 @ 3:28 am

    Huh. It sounds like Mark P has a different understanding than I do. I use “comprised” when I want to make it clear that only and exactly the listed elements were included, and he uses “comprised” when he wants to leave open the possibility of something else being included. I wonder if this is a difference between our specialties? Now I must go check the literature and figure out whether I have been incorrecting people’s papers for years!

    [(myl) My understanding is the same as yours, and the OED agrees: “6.e. Said especially of the things that collectively make up the whole of the thing or class spoken of.”]

  22. Stephen C. Carlson said,

    February 9, 2015 @ 3:48 am

    As the linked-to case indicates, “comprising” is actually the standard transitional term in patent claims, but, if “comprised of” managed to sneak its way through the patent office, courts will interpret “comprised of” the same as “comprising.”

  23. A Lees said,

    February 9, 2015 @ 5:49 am

    Training as a copy-editor, I learnt that ‘comprised of’ is wrong. I think that mistakes should be corrected. I do not think that if enough people make a mistake it stops being a mistake.

    [(myl) Lofdædum sceal
    in mægþa gehwære man geþeon!]

  24. Rodger C said,

    February 9, 2015 @ 7:49 am

    In light of that, “righteous asshole” may be more appropriate.

    Have we had a post on the use of “righteous” to mean “self-righteous”?

    [(myl) No, but the OED has a subentry: “1.c. With negative connotations: characterized by affected or hypocritical moral rectitude or superiority; self-righteous, sanctimonious.”]

  25. languagehat said,

    February 9, 2015 @ 10:04 am

    Training as a copy-editor, I learnt that ‘comprised of’ is wrong.

    I think you mean: I “learnt” that ‘comprised of’ is “wrong.” We all are taught all sorts of nonsense when we are helpless youth; part of growing up is the process of unlearning it. I am a copyeditor by profession, and I know comprised of is perfectly good English and do not waste my time “correcting” it.

  26. Theophylact said,

    February 9, 2015 @ 11:03 am

    Of course, “righteous” is also used as an intensifier, so “righteous asshole” works anyway.

  27. Jonathon Owen said,

    February 9, 2015 @ 11:07 am

    I do not think that if enough people make a mistake it stops being a mistake.

    So how does something stop being a mistake? What’s the process by which we determine which things are mistakes and which things are correct?

  28. languagehat said,

    February 9, 2015 @ 11:14 am

    So how does something stop being a mistake? What’s the process by which we determine which things are mistakes and which things are correct?

    There’s no bright line; it’s messy, like everything to do with human beings. The first time somebody used bead ‘prayer’ to mean ‘one of those little things you finger as you say your prayers,’ it was clearly a mistake (and doubtless an amusing one). The thousandth time, it was prevalent enough that the peevers of the day presumably peeved loudly about it: “Why can’t people get it through their heads what bead means? It’s simple!” And eventually so many people used it the “wrong” way that the sticklers looked like fuddy-duddies, and now nobody but historical linguists and browsers of etymologies even knows what it used to mean. The only winning move is not to care so much about “which things are mistakes and which things are correct.” Use language as seems right to you, let others do the same, and trust that it will all sort itself out.

  29. Jonathon Owen said,

    February 9, 2015 @ 11:42 am

    There’s no bright line; it’s messy, like everything to do with human beings.

    Oh, I know. It’s just that most people who say that a mistake will always be a mistake—even if literally everyone does it—don’t seem to have thought about these questions at all. Grammar isn’t dictated by some sort of ruling body, and it doesn’t derive from a set of first principles.

    Even though there’s no bright line at which point something ceases to be an error and becomes correct, we have to recognize that what is considered correct ultimately comes from usage. It’s pretty silly to insist that something is an error even if everyone does it.

  30. Rodger C said,

    February 9, 2015 @ 12:15 pm

    We do not presume to come to this site trusting in our own righteousness. Usually.

  31. GH said,

    February 9, 2015 @ 12:51 pm

    JS:

    Wow — so many LL commenters equating the calling out of an egregious troll with said egregious troll’s egregious trolling?

    How is he a troll? He’s making edits that in his opinion improves the writing on Wikipedia. We may or may not agree, but he appears to be sincere and well-meaning in his work. (More than anything, his efforts seem pointless because it would surely be trivial to write a bot that could perform these edits automatically.)

    Diane:

    I would add that one thing I have learned in editing is that you don’t change wording that can be plausibly defended as acceptable English, even if not everyone accepts it, and even if it annoys you. It really pisses people off when you make changes to their writing for questionable reasons. They have the right to choose minority usages, even if it grates on you.

    Yes, but Wikipedia is a bit different, since the whole concept that it’s the encyclopedia “anyone can edit” means you have to accept that people may change what you have written. If they disagree, they can always change it back.

  32. AB said,

    February 9, 2015 @ 12:52 pm

    Training as a copy-editor, I learnt that ‘comprised of’ is wrong. […] I think that mistakes should be corrected.

    Quite right. If you ever run in to your old boss, please correct him.

  33. JJM said,

    February 9, 2015 @ 12:55 pm

    A Lees: “I do not think that if enough people make a mistake it stops being a mistake.”

    And yet you provide a quote from Beowulf. Any thoughts on all those English speakers who, over the last thousand years or so, made enough mistakes* to completely transform Old English into our modern variety?

    * Such as ignoring gender accord, dropping case endings, losing verb forms and substituting older words with newfangled ones.

    [(myl) Exactly my point in adding the quote. In Seamus Heaney’s translation:

    Behavior that’s admired
    is the path to power among people everywhere.

    The sentiment — at least as it applies to language — is more or less the same as Horace’s

    si volet usus
    quem penes arbitrium est et ius et norma loquendi

    but the line of descent to modern English from Beowulf is clearer…

    But in fact the analogy is misleading, because in the case of “comprised of”, the innovation is the idea that this usage is wrong — the peeve emerged a century or two later than the allegedly incorrect usage did.]

  34. GH said,

    February 9, 2015 @ 1:08 pm

    JJM, the red Beowulf quote in A Lees’ post is by Mark Liberman, who adds his responses in-line in the comments.

  35. Matthew McIrvin said,

    February 9, 2015 @ 1:17 pm

    One of the previous iterations of this discussion mentioned that the Collins dictionary specifically marks the offending use of “comprised of” as an error, though other dictionaries do not. I wonder if that was one of the major vectors of the rule.

  36. Matthew McIrvin said,

    February 9, 2015 @ 1:20 pm

    …ah, I guess Strunk and White condemn it, as does Garner’s usage guide and many others. Look no further…

  37. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 9, 2015 @ 3:20 pm

    Wikipedia articles seem to vary in terms of their usage of US v. UK spelling conventions (not that there are only two perfectly-internally-consistent sets of conventions out there), and in many instances (i.e. where the subject is not itself conceptually connected to an Anglophone country whose local conventions could be deferred to) there is no natural choice. I can see it being a modest public service to make any given article internally consistent so that the accreted inconsistent default preferences of different editors don’t create discontinuity for the reader. But you would think (or at least hope?) that the Powers That Be would consider anyone who went from article to article systematically changing every instance of “color” to “colour” or the other way round (in articles that were already internally-consistent on the issue) to be a vandal who ought to be excluded from the premises. Indeed, now that I pause to look it up, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Manual_of_Style#National_varieties_of_English seems quite sensible, especially the penultimate sentence “An article should not be edited or renamed simply to switch from one variety of English to another.” A broader-than-probably-intended-in-context sense of “variety of English” would resolve the “comprise” issue.

  38. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 9, 2015 @ 3:43 pm

    Note fwiw the first bullet point in the second list at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/50,000,000_Elvis_Fans_Can%27t_Be_Wrong#Homage.

    [(myl) The original reference, of course, is to the 1927 hit song “50,000,000 Frenchmen can’t be wrong“:


    ]

  39. Piyush said,

    February 9, 2015 @ 4:03 pm

    @Diane: It is good to know that at least some journal copy-editors understand how annoying quibbling peeves can be for native speakers (or for someone with native or near-native proficiency).

    Graham Cormode, in his paper How not to review a paper, points out an extreme case of this, which he calls the ‘”Natives are restless” technique. Here is the relevant excerpt:

    The “Natives Are Restless” technique consists of two sentences, inserted somewhere in the first paragraph or so of the review:

    The English in some passages is a little odd and this obscures the meaning. The manuscript would benefit from revision by a native English speaker before re-submission.

    Of course, the ambiguous passages are never identified. This technique is most devastating when all the authors are native English speakers. Adversarial reviewers also particularly enjoy employing this attack when the authors are of some combination of (say) American, Indian, and British origins, so that they can argue amongst themselves about what is “native English”

  40. Jeff W said,

    February 9, 2015 @ 6:11 pm

    @ JW Brewer

    …you would think…that the Powers That Be would consider anyone who went from article to article systematically changing every instance of “color” to “colour” or the other way round (in articles that were already internally-consistent on the issue) to be a vandal…

    My guess is that Mr Henderson would view his efforts as being a bit closer to changing “donut” to “doughnut” or maybe “careen” to “career” (where appropriate) and not the other way around.

  41. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 9, 2015 @ 6:43 pm

    Poking around google books suggests that different values have been proposed for the number of Frenchmen who can’t be wrong and that both the 50,000 and 50,000,000 variants were extant as early as 1930. More importantly (well, to me, because I was bothered by a discrepancy between my own memory and wikipedia) the exact same bootlegged set of 1977 Elvis Costello performances has apparently circulated in both “50,000 Fans” and “50,000,000 Fans” editions.

  42. Chris C. said,

    February 9, 2015 @ 6:55 pm

    “Training as a copy-editor, I learnt that ‘comprised of’ is wrong.”

    And yet you did not learn what a horribly stilted and awkward construction this is. Something has gone seriously amiss in your training, methinks.

  43. Ray Girvan said,

    February 9, 2015 @ 7:39 pm

    @GH: sincere and well-meaning in his work

    That’s a very poor criterion on Wikipedia, and effort alone deserves no merit. Any number of tendentious editors (to use Wikipedia’s phrase) bent on shaping Wikipedia content to their own world-view are no doubt sincere and well-meaning. This is just an angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin issue, but there are a lot of editors who direct this kind of effort toward biased content. Having been peripherally involved in trying (unsuccessfully) to stop it happening, I can think of one or two areas of strong linguistic relevance that are completely contaminated by the efforts of editors with this kind of monomania.

  44. languagehat said,

    February 9, 2015 @ 8:05 pm

    Yes, I can’t help but think that anyone whose reaction to this is “Aww, isn’t that cute, he’s working so hard at it!” hasn’t spent any time in the Wikipedia trenches, where this kind of monomania is not only common but, as Ray says, often harmful.

  45. GH said,

    February 9, 2015 @ 9:06 pm

    I was specifically disagreeing with the characterization of him as “an egregious troll.”

    I’m an occasional Wikipedia editor, and I’ve experienced a range of problematic behavior on there, but this particular quirk strikes me as entirely innocuous, because (1) it involves only trivial rewording that should not ever change the meaning of the text, and (2) the substitution is just as good English as the original, if not perhaps better. (Some commenters have disagreed, but I’m unconvinced. I’m assuming he has the common sense to leave quotations and other cases that shouldn’t be changed alone.)

    I don’t think it’s fair to extrapolate “this kind of monomania” to encompass imposing biased views or other harmful edits. Obsessiveness is a pretty common trait of the dedicated Wikipedian, either for good or for bad. We have to look at what they’re actually doing. If this guy instead went around fixing unambiguous errors, such as misplaced apostrophes, he would clearly be doing good (if only in a small way). If his edits were unambiguously wrong, or harmed the quality of the text in service of some bogus rule, his efforts would be for the worse. What he’s actually doing is harmless, so it’s not a problem, even if the basis for his obsession is not linguistically well grounded.

  46. JS said,

    February 9, 2015 @ 9:21 pm

    “Troll” due to the giddy pleasure this gentleman seems to take in incessant provocation of fellow editors and disruption of the spirit of cooperation and tolerance that makes Wikipedia (sometimes) work.

  47. GH said,

    February 9, 2015 @ 9:36 pm

    I see no indication whatsoever of glee in other editors’ annoyance (in fact, the article explains that he takes care not to edit the same article more than once within six months, precisely to avoid pissing off editors). If anything, he seems tolerantly baffled that anyone would object.

  48. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 10, 2015 @ 12:11 am

    I’m no fan of “comprised of”, but the criterion for Wikipedia’s language is “encyclopedic”, and I have no trouble finding “comprised of” in on-line Britannica articles. The first Google hit is in the article “hinterland”: “MSA’s are comprised of a central city, defined by the corporate limits; an urbanized, built-up area contiguous to the central city; and a non-urbanized area, delimited on a county basis, economically tied to the central city.”

    Not that I like the style of that sentence.

  49. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 10, 2015 @ 12:37 am

    MYL: Can we date the idea that “comprise” meaning “compose” is wrong from the emergence of the peeve? (Which I don’t see earlier than this example from 1898. I’ll add that it states the most basic prescriptive philosophy straightforwardly: “The error of substitution is very common, but no amount of currency can make this wrong use correct.”) If people used the “consist of” sense first, then wouldn’t they have believed that the sense they weren’t using was wrong? And according to this Google ngram result, “comprised of” was only a small fraction of “comprised” till it started to increase slowly around 1900. I’d guess that for lots of people who knew the word, “consist of” was simply the only meaning; if they’d noticed “comprised of”, they’d have said it was wrong.

    By the way, your citation from the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals appears to use “comprised of” to mean something like “containing”, not “consisting entirely of”. Connected with the use in patents?

  50. Bart said,

    February 10, 2015 @ 3:36 am

    Originally ‘troll’ was used of somebody who used the internet IN BAD FAITH; eg, somebody who joined a discussion group about Bach and, just to annoy people, posted messages about how Bach had stolen all his best tunes from Handel.

    I agree with GH. I don’t see any indication that this Wikipedia chap is a troll in that sense.
    It’s a pity IMO that even on LanguageLog people now use ‘troll’ to mean ‘anybody whose internet behaviour the speaker dislikes’.

  51. Brett said,

    February 10, 2015 @ 10:59 am

    @Bart: I only use the Internet sense of “troll” in the original sense that you mention, but it seems that the vast majority of people I encounter online do not realize that the word “troll” caught on because of its double meaning. A troll is a nasty creature that drops its hook in the water and jiggles it along, hoping to snare a newbie.

    The “fishing” sense of “trolling” seems to be little remembered. Most people just seem to think of trolls as dirty little folk who hide under dark bridges and make trouble. However, even just the monstrous imagery does provoke different responses in different online contexts. Many places online, you hear the advice: “Don’t feed the troll.” However, when I started hanging around UseNet 20+ years ago, I gravitated toward the hangouts of role-playing gamers (especially Dungeons & Dragons players). The troll imagery evoked a rather different response in those quarters. In D&D, you have to damage trolls with fire or acid to keep them from regenerating, so the conventional wisdom was to to open up on perceived trolls with massive flames. Even if that’s what the trolls were trying to provoke, it was still deemed the correct response.

  52. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 10, 2015 @ 12:25 pm

    Is there a standard internet term for the not-quite-a-troll sort of person this fellow is, i.e. someone who (let us assume arguendo) is not motivated by subjective malice but whose behavior is nonetheless destructive and counterproductive to a similar degree due to an apparent inability or unwillingness to understand the perspectives of others?

  53. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 10, 2015 @ 12:25 pm

    Is there a standard internet term for the not-quite-a-troll sort of person this fellow is, i.e. someone who (let us assume arguendo) is not motivated by subjective malice but whose behavior is nonetheless destructive and counterproductive to a similar degree due to an apparent inability or unwillingness to understand the perspectives of others?

  54. JJM said,

    February 10, 2015 @ 12:31 pm

    GH: “JJM, the red Beowulf quote in A Lees’ post is by Mark Liberman, who adds his responses in-line in the comments.”

    Thanks, I hadn’t realized that.

  55. GH said,

    February 10, 2015 @ 1:30 pm

    @JW Brewer

    Aside from disagreeing on the question of whether McMillen’s behavior falls into that category… no, I don’t think there is a standard term, though there may be one in Wikipedia-jargon. How about “nuisance”?

  56. Ray Girvan said,

    February 10, 2015 @ 6:29 pm

    Tendentious editing? Or Disruptive editing?

    A disruptive editor is an editor who exhibits tendencies such as the following … Is tendentious: continues editing an article or group of articles in pursuit of a certain point for an extended time despite opposition from other editors”

  57. Jeff W said,

    February 11, 2015 @ 12:25 am

    Tendentious editing? Or Disruptive editing?

    I’m not sure Mr Henderson falls into either category. (I agree with GH’s comment above.)

    Wikipedia says

    Disruptive editing is a pattern of editing that may extend over a long time or many articles, and disrupts progress towards improving an article or building the encyclopedia.

    It doesn’t seem like Mr Henderson’s pattern of editing is disrupting progress towards anything, although it’s extending over a long time and many articles and annoying some editors.

    Wikipedia says “Tendentious editing is a manner of editing which is partisan, biased or skewed taken as a whole.”

    I doubt style changes fall under that description.

    At worst the guy is foisting on Wikipedia a house style that conforms with a prescriptive rule—his reasons and the rule are both based on faulty or false premises—but how bad is that? If he just pointed to Garner and said simply, “I’m making my edits based on that,” would his edits be less “tendentious” or less “disruptive”?

  58. Harold said,

    February 11, 2015 @ 2:00 am

    I don’t think it was ever a matter of right and wrong but of what sounded elegant. Comprising in my opinion is more elegant because it is only one word not two. But stylistic elegance isn’t always the most desirable goal in writing, especially legal and technical writing.

  59. is said,

    February 11, 2015 @ 2:46 am

    It’s funny: I find ‘comprised of’ so utterly unremarkable that I initially had a hard time understanding this post. I thought perhaps the contention of this Wikipedia editor was that people were frequently using ‘comprised of’ incorrectly (and kept wondering what the exact ‘error’ was), not realizing that in fact the contention was that ‘comprised of’ is itself incorrect.

    I actually find substituting ‘composed of’ for ‘comprised of’ sometimes makes the sentences in question sound a bit more jarring to my (mental) ear, but perhaps I’m a minority in that regard…

  60. Brett said,

    February 12, 2015 @ 9:19 am

    @is: You’re not alone, that “comprised of” can sound more natural than “composed of.” It definitely sounds a lot more natural than the supposedly unobjectionable use of “comprise.” To me “X is comprised of Y” is unremarkable, but “X comprises Y” is marked.

  61. Alex said,

    February 12, 2015 @ 11:25 pm

    Historical pedigree aside, I don’t understand why it makes sense to have a perfectly good word like “comprise” mean the same thing as both “compose” and “include.” It really should be one or the other — just as “literally” should not mean both “literally” and “figuratively.”

    Also, “comprise” in its classical sense doesn’t mean exactly the same thing as “includes,” as noted in the OED and Diane’s comment above. “Includes” isn’t exhaustive: “includes” could mean “consists of (entirely),” or it could mean “contains (among other things).” But “comprise” means “consists of.” So the United States comprises 50 states, not 10. But if I say the United States includes 50 states, or if I say the United States includes California and Vermont, both are true statements.

    In short, if the traditional view is that “comprise” means “consists of,” and thus replaces one word with two, doesn’t that make the traditional view both logically coherent and efficient? And aren’t those as good reasons as any to defend the traditional view?

  62. Wikipedia and the Oligarchy of Ignorance said,

    February 20, 2015 @ 9:30 am

    […] for typically brusque and/or ‘anti-elite’ elitist opinions to the contrary). Even better is “Can 50,000 Wikipedia Edits Be Wrong?” by Mark Lieberman at Language Log, the leading linguistics site in the world, which has been […]

RSS feed for comments on this post