Counterfeit cultural capital

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Dahlia Lithwick, "It's Good for You", Slate 5/10/2011:

The appeal doesn't all come down to judicial politics, either, although everyone is already atwitter about the fact that the random, computer-selected, three-judge panel was comprised of three judges appointed by Democratic presidents: Diana Gribbon Motz, nominated by Bill Clinton in 1994, and Andre M. Davis and Wynn, both nominated by Obama in 2009.
[…]
It's not clear to me that a panel comprised of two African-Americans and a woman, sitting in Richmond no less, will be all that receptive to arguments about the wonders of nullification.

In the comments section, "Angela Stockton" takes Ms. Lithwick to task:

Dahlia, the panel was not COMPRISED of three judges–it was COMPOSED of three judges. "Compose" and "comprise" do not mean the same thing. Parts compose a whole, while a whole comprises its parts. "Comprise" comes from the same root as "comprehensive," which means all-inclusive.

Another commenter comes right back with:

Angela, I suggest you spend some time at Language Log. Maybe you'll be cured of your snooty, prescriptivist ways.

Much as we appreciate new readers, I'd respectfully suggest that a better link for authoritative information about standard English usage would be Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage. You should buy a copy if you don't already own one — the original and the concise version are equally good, and there's also a version for the Kindle. And you can also conveniently check the whole thing on line, courtesy of Merriam-Webster's open-access permission to Google Books.

In the entry for comprise, you'll learn that Ms. Stockton's negative reaction to comprised of was widely shared by self-appointed usage experts in the 20th century, despite the fact that the OED documents comprise meaning "compose" from the late 18th century onwards. MWDEU doesn't give the details, but checking the OED, we find that the first couple of citations are

1794 W. Paley View Evidences Christianity I. i. ix. 212   The propositions which comprise the several heads of our testimony.
1799 W. Jones Adams's Lect. Nat. & Exper. Philos. (ed. 2) II. xvi. App. 262   The wheels and pinions comprizing the wheel-work.

MWDEW observes that

There are actually two constructions involved in the disputed usage: the passive one ["comprised of"] and an active one that is most easily spotted when a plural noun is the subject of comprise.

MWDEW notes that the OED's first citation for comprised of meaning "to be composed of, to consist of" is from 1874 — but it's now easy to antedate this via Google Books. Thus John Norris's 1704 Essay towards the theory of the ideal or intelligible world observes that

For so tho' a Triangle in the most simple and precise Conception of it be only a figure comprised of three right Lines, yet these three Lines will necessarily make three Angles, and these three Angles will be equal to two right ones, &c.

An edition of Euclid's Elements published in 1714 tells us that

Seeing then the angles comprised of equal right lines are equal, we have found the angle FDE equal to the angle ABC; …

And similar examples can be found throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. The Housekeeper's Instructor, 1804, gives instructions for "Suppers for small companies comprised of five Articles"; The American Farmer, 1845, informs us that "Phosphate of Ammonia is comprised of Phosphoric acid … and ammonia"; The Church of England Quarterly Review for 1840 explains that "The General Assembly is comprised of representatives from each Presbytery".

This usage continues to be widespread in well-edited writing by well-regarded writers. Thus from The New Yorker:

Evgenia Citkowitz’s first book is comprised of seven stories and a novella, and she emerges as a master of both forms.

The first would be an XP team comprised of Mattson associates Peter Dea and Dan Howell.

In between her readings, a trio comprised of a flutist, a violist, and a harpist played selections from Iber, Debussy, and Astor Piazzolla.

From The Atlantic:

Later, Joseph Medill of the Chicago Tribune asked Lincoln why he had chosen a cabinet comprised of enemies and opponents.

China's population consists of a 90 percent Han Chinese majority, and a 10 percent minority comprised of fifty-five officially recognized ethnic groups.

… a forthcoming collection titled Severance is comprised of sixty prose poems, each from the perspective of a head severed from a guillotine.

From The New York Times:

The bid is comprised of 55.65 francs in cash and 103.35 francs worth of Johnson & Johnson common stock.

This left the nascent nation comprised of seven states, populated by five million people, not very rich, not very powerful and not especially unified.

The show — comprised of seven one-hour episodes — will premiere on Sunday, April 3 at 9 p.m. Eastern.

It's easy to find such examples, because the passive "comprised of" has never (?) been used with comprise meaning "include", for the same reason that no one ever expresses the notion that group X includes members Y and Z by saying that "Y and Z are included of X".

As for the active form of comprise, "X comprises Y" continues to be used ambiguously, sometimes to mean that X includes Y, and sometimes to mean that X makes up Y (so that Y includes X).  Despite this apparent ambiguity, no one seems to have any trouble processing instances of either sort. Some examples of the former (allegedly incorrect) use from The New Yorker:

We accompanied a field trip of the Torrey Botanical Club to a nearby woodland area in search of poisonous mushrooms and other varieties of fungi and lichens. Twenty ladies and gentlemen comprised the party. Talk of the Town, The New Yorker 12/4/1943 (attributed in the index to Eugene Kinkaid and Harold Ross).

Advancing the politique des auteurs in the nineteen-fifties, the young critics at Cahiers du Cinéma who would comprise the French New Wave conducted long and detailed interviews with the directors they admired.

The MWDEU entry asks a pertinent question:

It is a little hard to understand why these constructions that are so obviously established are still the source of so much discontent. (They have been defined in Merriam-Webster dictionaries since 1934.)

This tradition is maintained by the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary entry, in which sense 3 is glossed as "compose, constitute", with a usage note:

Although it has been in use since the late 18th century, sense 3 is still attacked as wrong. Why it has been singled out is not clear, but until comparatively recent times it was found chiefly in scientific or technical writing rather than belles lettres. Our current evidence shows a slight shift in usage: sense 3 is somewhat more frequent in recent literary use than the earlier senses. You should be aware, however, that if you use sense 3 you may be subject to criticism for doing so, and you may want to choose a safer synonym such as compose or make up.

Indeed, the Angela Stocktons of the world are Out There, waiting to pounce on you. As I wrote with respect to another Zombie Rule ("Also, check the back seat", 11/7/2009):

In dealing with someone who exhibits this level of zombie-like persistence, despite lists of devastating counter-examples from the most authoritative sources of formal writing, in the face of rational counter-arguments from every available grammatical authority, it's clear that the expertise that FW needs is not linguistic.  She should turn instead to Columbus's list of rules for surviving in a zombie-infested world

Though I hasten to add, again, that we do not support or condone anti-prescriptivist violence.



76 Comments

  1. Russinoff said,

    May 11, 2011 @ 11:34 am

    Mark:

    The link that you provide to "An edition of Euclid's Elements published in 1714" appears to be broken. The only instance of the quoted line that I could find at Google Books is in a 1751 edition of Barrow's 1655 translation. I don't have access to any earlier edition, but I'd like to know whether this usage was actually Barrow's. Can you help me find the 1714 edition that you quoted?

    [(myl) Sorry, a cut-and-paste error left one character off the end of the URL. It should work now. The title page is here, and verifies that this is Barrow's translation, so that you may be right, the usage may date to 1655 rather than 1714.

    But text search failed to locate the passage in this 1660 edition, perhaps because of bad OCR, but perhaps because the text is in fact different.]

  2. ShadowFox said,

    May 11, 2011 @ 11:43 am

    Ah! But Angela Stockton missed the point, after she got a whiff of misuse. Lithwick used "was comprised of" where "comprised of" would have been just fine. Still, each of your Atlantic and New Yorker sets includes the first example that used "is comprised of". The other 7 examples all omit the copula, as MWDEU apparently suggests. Of course, if I were actually trying to split those hairs, I would have to tell Dahlia that her real name is likely Litwak and someone had screwed it up along the way… Then we would get into the whole Polak-Litwak controversy and lose the original point… What was I talking about?

  3. ShadowFox said,

    May 11, 2011 @ 11:47 am

    OK, found the thread back–actually, Lithwick uses both "was comprised of" and "comprised of" in the two passages that you quoted. The second one is certainly beyond reproach–the the first one probably should be ;-)

    [(myl) You've lost me. The MWDEU entry notes no relevant distinction between the tensed passive form "be comprised of" and the tenseless construction "comprised of" as used in adjuncts and post-nominal modifiers. And I'm not aware of any usage mavens who allow one but forbid the other, though I admit that such irrationality is not implausible.

    Were you thinking that the post-nominal modifier examples are active?]

  4. KevinM said,

    May 11, 2011 @ 12:06 pm

    @myl "Were you thinking that the post-nominal modifier examples are active?"
    No, I'm sure ShadowFox meant that the Eskimos have no word for "comprise."

  5. NW said,

    May 11, 2011 @ 12:12 pm

    Oddly, I'm a paid-up descriptive linguist but 'comprised of' is plain ungrammatical in my idiolect. I figure there must be a Dialect A and Dialect B about this, as CGEL would call them.

    I have no problems with the, what shall we call it, ambitransitive active 'comprise': the team comprises ten members and ten members comprise the team. This is unique to this verb, I think; with a normal 'middle' verb like 'paint', 'boil', 'open', one construction is intransitive.

  6. NW said,

    May 11, 2011 @ 12:14 pm

    'Paint'? I didn't mean 'paint'. Perhaps I was thinking of 'spread' in 'this paint spreads easily'.

  7. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    May 11, 2011 @ 12:19 pm

    Re: the 1714 "edition of Euclid's Elements": the passage in question is actually not from his Elements but from his Data. The 1660 edition only contained Elements; Data, and hence your quoted passage, was first included only in the 1714 edition.

  8. ShadowFox said,

    May 11, 2011 @ 12:24 pm

    > Were you thinking that the post-nominal modifier examples are active?

    No, I was thinking of it as a PPL, which would not bother anyone–I don't think…

    But there is a difference between "a panel was comprised of three judges" and "a panel comprised [of] three judges" (or, perhaps, "three judges comprised a panel…"). Then there is the "A panel comprised of three judges issued a ruling", which is what the second passage is equivalent to. I suspect, Stockton was objecting to the first one. She might object to the second one, but it wasn't in Lithwick's piece, so we don't actually know. At least, this was my interpretation of the passage you quoted from MWDEU.

  9. ShadowFox said,

    May 11, 2011 @ 12:25 pm

    I could be wrong, of course.

  10. Logophilius said,

    May 11, 2011 @ 12:42 pm

    Arguments like this — and there are many on Language Log — always seem to boil down to the foundational belief that how it was done in the past should be acceptable in the future. Except, of course, when it's inconvenient. No one would argue that formal writing should accept words the way, say, Chaucer (or even Shakespeare) _spelled_ them, yet learned people have no problem relying on Chaucer to prove some _grammar_ or _usage_ argument. Why are some aspects of the works of our literary greats accepted as a model and other aspects ignored?

    Describing what writers in the past have done is all fine and good. But holding up the past as an infallible beacon of Correctness is going too far. Civilization progresses because we learn from the mistakes of the past. We would have no problem talking about the mistakes of Winston Churchill, for example. Why is literature different? How often do we talk about Shakespeare's mistakes? Or Dickens's?

    Perhaps, as a copy editor, I'm biased because I have to make these types of usage decisions every day with other people's words. I'm not trolling blogs waiting to jump on every little grammatical grief that gets my goat; I'm the one deciding what those snobby trolls ultimately see and pounce on.

    Knowing usage history is helpful. It can point me in the right direction, give me some perspective. But that isn't all that's involved. Writing isn't just about clarity. It's also about style. And efficiency. It's art.

    [(myl) The historical examples come up in such cases because prescriptivists common make arguments of the form "the future should be like the past". Thus many of the 20th-C opponents of "comprised of" object on historical and etymological grounds, as Ms. Stockton did. I agree that these arguments are logically flawed — whether they're used to show that a given usage is now bad or that it is now good — but they're often empirically flawed as well, as they are in this case.

    I also cited a dozen or so contemporary examples in favor of the view that comprise meaning "compose" is within the range of today's standard usage, and MWDEU cites dozens of others. A bit of web search will easily turn up thousands more. In the face of such evidence, you're free to say that you feel this usage is ungrammatical for you, or that you object to it on stylistic grounds, or that it offends the gods, or whatever. And the editors of a random publication are entitled to insist that they won't allow it.

    But neither those editors nor you are free to assert, without evidence, that comprise-meaning-compose is "wrong" or "substandard" or otherwise outside the bounds of today's standard written English usage, since those are statements about the collective behavioral dispositions of writers and speakers of English at large. You're entitled to your own tastes, but not to your own facts.]

  11. J. W. Brewer said,

    May 11, 2011 @ 12:43 pm

    I find "the panel comprised" and "the panel is/was comprised of" both grammatical (if perhaps fussy/clunky/inelegant), but "the panel comprised of" (absent some other verb floating around the sentence) is totally wrong-sounding. But maybe that's a BrE usage? I found a Brit-ecclesiastical-PR specimen here: http://www.anglicancommunion.org/acns/news.cfm/2011/1/30/ACNS4786. (But I certainly don't mean to suggest that I'd go with "was composed of," instead. That's at least as fussy/clunky/inelegant.)

  12. J. W. Brewer said,

    May 11, 2011 @ 12:53 pm

    @Logophilius: But in this particular post, the 18th century usage was shown by myl to be consistent with (presumably copy-edited) usage from as recent as this year published in the New York Times, the Atlantic, etc. So I am puzzled as to what you think you're complaining about.

  13. Zythophile said,

    May 11, 2011 @ 12:55 pm

    It may be permissible, but "is comprised of" sure is ugly.

  14. J. W. Brewer said,

    May 11, 2011 @ 1:12 pm

    A recent post by Jon Adler on the Volokh blog says "A notice on the website for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit announces that the three-judge panel to hear the appeal in Thomas More Law Center v. Obama, another challenge to the constitutionality of the individual mandate, will consist of Circuit Judges Boyce F. Martin, Jr. and Jeffrey S. Sutton, and District Court Judge James L. Graham, of the Southern District of Ohio, sitting by designation." I personally find "consist[ed] of" less aesthetically clunky than either "is/was comprised of" or "is/was composed of" in this specific context (which of course doesn't mean any of them are ungrammatical). But I would find it highly irksome to write for a publication whose copy-editors sought to revise my choices in that particular area. (Indeed, if I managed such a publication, that sort of thing would lead me to infer that my copy-editors apparently had too much free time on their hands and that staffing/compensation issues should probably be revisited.)

  15. Tom Recht said,

    May 11, 2011 @ 1:28 pm

    Isn't there a weak link in the chain of reasoning "comprise-meaning-compose is standard, therefore its passive 'comprised of' is equally unobjectionable"? The regular passive would be 'comprised by', not 'comprised of', I think.

    [(myl) Indeed. If that were the argument, the step that you point to would be problematic. I didn't intend to make that argument, however, but rather to follow MWDEU in observing that both active comprise meaning "make up" and the passive construction comprised of meaning "made up of" have been standard for some time, and continue to be standard, in the face of considerable complaining from usage experts.]

    (Of course 'comprised of' stands up perfectly well on its own without this argument, as the examples show.)

  16. Pflaumbaum said,

    May 11, 2011 @ 1:38 pm

    The fact that is comprised of is 3.5 times as common in COCA as in the BNC might support NW's hypothesis that there's dialectal variation.

    I wonder if, when two similar-sounding words have similar meanings, there's a tendency for prescriptivists to want to crowbar them apart, and so preserve/create a fine distinction. As with Pinker's anguish (second-last paragraph) about disinterested and uninterested, which, despite my rational self, I share.

  17. Linda the Copy Editor said,

    May 11, 2011 @ 1:39 pm

    Though I didn't check the others, I feel compelled to note that none of the examples said to be from the Atlantic come from content that was copyedited. Two are from blogs, and one from what seems to be a chat board.

    [(myl) This matters only if you think that prose from the like of James Fallows can't be considered Proper English until it's been vetted by a copy editor. But anyhow, I've replaced the three previous examples by three others, taken from stuff in http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/.

  18. Spell Me Jeff said,

    May 11, 2011 @ 1:41 pm

    But holding up the past as an infallible beacon of Correctness is going too far.

    Surely this is a caricature? I don't recall any of Mark's posts ever suggesting this approach. It's more like:

    1. If a prescriptivist wants to appeal to historical usage (or offers no defense at all)

    2. then it is useful to see what the history does in fact say

    3. balanced with a sense of current (not trendy) usage.

    And generally, the discussions that ensue are interesting because they explore the subtleties, not because they discover any "infallible beacons."

  19. Hermann Burchard said,

    May 11, 2011 @ 2:05 pm

    After reading some of this, it occurs to me that it the time may be ripe for coining a new word: LL while duly being non-prescriptivist is indeed engaged in meta-prescriptivist poppycock [hyphen put solely to avoid spell check complaint].
    In fact, the new(?) science of isochrone linguistics is meta-prescriptivist as it endeavors to critique living language (LiLa). LiLa should be held inviolate as any living thing, excepting bugs of course, by PETA standards, or because LiLa is spoken by live human beings, whom to critique in any official capacity (such as professor at a college) may infringe on their collective human &/or civil rights (1st Amendment).

  20. Mark said,

    May 11, 2011 @ 2:34 pm

    @Logophilius: The answer is that they aren't, in fact, arguing that because it was done in the past it is OK today. You are fighting a strawman of the real argument.

    The point that continues to be made here is that the usage(s) being objected to have continued forward to today SINCE the distant past. It isn't that it was once done that way… they are arguing that it has been done that way for a century or more continuously, that the majority sees no error in the usage, and that there is no fixing it now.

    Prescriptivism fails, in just about every case, to "correct" or "simplify" the language. Even more than a century of "good advice" to just about every school-child who speaks English hasn't made "ain't" go away.

  21. Mark said,

    May 11, 2011 @ 2:44 pm

    @ Hermann Burchard:

    "[Living Language] is spoken by live human beings, whom to critique in any official capacity (such as professor at a college) may infringe on their collective human &/or civil rights (1st Amendment)."

    I'm not sure where in the 1st Amendment you are protected from critique. I'm thinking just the reverse… the critique is protected. Skipping over the fact that it doesn't apply to about 95% of the planet… that 95% being partially comprised of at least one LLer. ;-)

    Also, you didn't ever explain what LLers are doing that you consider Meta-prescriptivist poppycock.

  22. Hermann Burchard said,

    May 11, 2011 @ 3:13 pm

    @Mark:

    Yes, metaprescriptivist poppycock indeed is protected speech. It's part of LiLa, as is presriptivist journalism ("omg" which looks a lot like bullying, usually of celebs, who are supposed to be able to take it).

    The "meta" prefix on "prescriptive" designates critique of critique. As in this case, myl objects that inveighing against "comprised of" is not borne out by isochrone linguist analysis.

    Please ask me more questions about LiLa and the uses of "meta" as a prefix. I am just in the process of writing my 3rd maths phil paper, which touches on such subject. This discussion likely will enter into that essay.

  23. Xmun said,

    May 11, 2011 @ 3:14 pm

    @Mark. I think Hermann Burchard was joking.

  24. JD Sanders said,

    May 11, 2011 @ 4:03 pm

    The use of "comprised of" bothers me as well, but for reasons different than Angela Stockton's. I think the communication would be better with a simpler, less ambiguous phrase like "composed of". So while the (usage has significant historical precedent) argument that LL is making is convincing enough, I would still appreciate the editor who would have crossed it out with a comment like "may make your readers cringe".

  25. Ben Hemmens said,

    May 11, 2011 @ 4:10 pm

    I'm not a big fan of comprising, whatever you and/or all the other worthies and/or Angela Stockton may say.

    Tell me an instance where I can't just as well use either "compose" / "is composed of " or "consist of".

    I feel (very subjectively at this time of night) that comprise is often not clearly demarcated from "include (among other things)" and I don't think that's quite right.

  26. Hermann Burchard said,

    May 11, 2011 @ 4:17 pm

    @Xmun, yes in part.

    Mark wrote "it [the 1st Amendment] doesn't apply to about 95% of the planet… that 95% being partially comprised of at least one LLer. ;-)" indicating by appended smiley emoticon ;-) that he himself was comprised in that minimal singleton subset of LL, and that he was speaking TIC.

    Maybe I similarly should have left a clue that I was spoke TFPIC. But then, TFPIC is not the same as TIC. While the latter may be indicated by emoticon such as ;-), this would violate the very intent of TFPIC.

    ?'^) [<— my personalized smiley showing curly locks inherited from my beloved mom.]

  27. Hiroshi said,

    May 11, 2011 @ 4:58 pm

    I rather like the morphing of "MWDEU" to "MWDEW."

  28. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 11, 2011 @ 6:29 pm

    The Google Ngram Viewer supports the difference between British and American use of comprised of. In the total corpus comprised of was vanishingly rare in the early 19th century, increased slowly till it was maybe 2 or 3% of comprisesaround 1900, and had its steepest increases around 1940 and especially 1970. The stories for British English and American English separately aren't too different.

  29. J.Smith said,

    May 11, 2011 @ 6:50 pm

    ..already atwitter about the fact that the random, computer-selected, three-judge panel was comprised of three judges appointed by Democratic presidents…
    It's not clear to me that a panel [comprised] of two African-Americans and a woman…

    The whole thing sounds odd to me (BrE). I would not even bother using the second "comprised", while the first bit of the sentence seems very tautological. I would avoid saying "three-judge panel was comprised of three judges". "Randomly" and "computer" serve the same function as well – so I might rephrase the whole thing something like "fact that all three judges on the randomly selected panel turned out to be appointed by Democratic presidents" – avoiding composed or comprised completely.

    Anyway just to chip in on what sounds "correct" to me:
    a panel composed of three judges
    a panel comprising three judges
    the three judges comprising the panel
    I would never add "of" or "by" after comprise. And also, the arguments of "comprise" seem to be reversible whereas those of "compose of" only work in one direction.

    Of course, it's all down to personal preferences and if someone read the article out loud nobody would fail to understand it. It's amazing how you can nearly completely mangle English grammar and sometimes even vocabulary, and still be understood – and in my experience this is not nearly as possible with other languages.

    [(myl) As it happens, I agree with your preferences. The problem arises when certain "authorities" decide that their preferences are the Only Correct Way, without paying any attention to how the language is actually used.

    As for English being unusual in its ability to retain understanding despite deviations from standard usage, I think you're quite wrong. For example, consider the nature of regional and class differences in varieties of most other modern languages, or the informal pidgin variants as used by immigrants. I see no evidence that English is even close to being in the lead in terms of the degree of variation that can be tolerated while retaining some communicative content.]

  30. Keith M Ellis said,

    May 11, 2011 @ 9:58 pm

    Logophilius's comment, intentionally or not, lays bare the true nature of prescriptivism: what seems correct to me is almost certainly correct and I can always come up with an ad hoc justification.

    This gets to the heart of why prescriptivism bothers me so much. Like others here, I suspect, my nature is in general more nitpicky, technical, and prone to consult authorities than average. I should be prescriptivist. Indeed, I have strong prescriptivist tendencies.

    But, as a general approach to language usage, prescriptivism fails all the sorts of tests that I naturally apply to any sort of analytical framework. It isn't consistent, it isn't empirical, it isn't built upon any legitimate and widely recognized authority.

    What it is, is a kind of folklore.

    Which is to say, it says much more about otherwise subterranean cultural/class biases, aspirational identities, implicit codes of behavior, and such than it does about "correct" language usage.

    If the prescriptivists would quit pretending that their usage preferences were a matter of philosophical necessity and own up to the simple fact that their preferences are a matter of taste (with "taste" understood in the fullest Bourdieuean sense), then I'd find them much more tolerable.

  31. CBK said,

    May 12, 2011 @ 1:12 am

    There's another thing to notice in "a panel comprised of two African-Americans and a woman." As Miller and Swift might have said in the Handbook of Nonsexist Writing (cf. p. 66), "What sex are the African-Americans? What race is the woman?"

  32. bfgray said,

    May 12, 2011 @ 2:30 am

    I have a genuine question of descriptive grammar! Following on from the point raised by Tom Recht, can anyone explain to me why the passives 'composed of', 'made up of' and 'comprised of' all use 'of' rather than 'by' to indicate the component parts? Does it have something to do with the fact that both 'composed' and 'made up' could, with a different meaning, have a human agent indicated in a 'by' phrase? Is it perhaps that, when we say 'A, B and C together make up/compose/comprise X', the subjects are not really considered true agents? And would that also explain why we don't say 'involved by' or 'included by', except in cases where there is a human agent doing the involving/including (e.g. Exemplus spuriosus was included by Linnaeus in the phylum Exemplidae)?

    Also, @myl said that we never say "Y and Z are included of X", but we do say "Y and Z are included in X". Does anyone out there say "Y and Z are comprised in X"? If not, why not? Does passive 'included' always require an understood human agent?

    P.S. While, like many others, I'd prefer it if 'comprise/comprised of' meaning 'make up/made up of' didn't exist, there's no arguing against this one on the basis of clarity: whether you say 'X comprises A, B and C' or 'A, B and C comprise X', there's never going to be any confusion about which are the parts and which is the whole. Is there?

  33. John Walden said,

    May 12, 2011 @ 2:59 am

    @bfgray . I'm in the dark too. But I've proved myself no great shakes as a linguist many times.

    "The bill includes service" doesn't passivize (isn't passivized?) as "Service is included by the bill" in the same way that "The committee included a student representative" doesn't passivize to "A student representative was included by the committee", unless with a different meaning ("included in the list"). So I agree that the true agent was the "the waiter" and "whoever chose the committee".

    It seems to transfer the authorship of the action from one member of the triangle to another: " Water filled the glass" "The glass was filled with water". Really, it was "the pourer" all along.

  34. GeorgeW said,

    May 12, 2011 @ 5:05 am

    CBK: "There's another thing to notice in "a panel comprised of two African-Americans and a woman."

    I don't think this is an instance of sexist writing. Many people think it important that judicial panels to be representative of both sexes and minority groups. This statement is addressing that interest. Similarly, in this case in particular, the political affiliation may be important to the outcome. So this was also mentioned.

  35. C Thornett said,

    May 12, 2011 @ 5:28 am

    GeorgeW: Do you mean that a person can be understood to be male unless otherwise specified and white unless otherwise specified ? Are we back to 'women and minorities' being a single group distinguished by not being part of the assumed norm of white males?

  36. GeorgeW said,

    May 12, 2011 @ 6:06 am

    C Thornett: "Do you mean that a person can be understood to be male unless otherwise specified and white unless otherwise specified ?"

    I don't think the writer intended to describe each individual member of the panel as to sex and racial category, but to note that women and minorities were represented and in what numbers.

  37. Bob Lieblich said,

    May 12, 2011 @ 6:17 am

    On this "two African-Americans and a woman" thing —

    First, what ever happened to "Blacks"?

    Second, English has articles to help us sort things out. Three people are on the panel and three characterstics (given that two are Black) are noted. If the woman was one of the two blacks, wouldn't Dahlia have written something like "two African-Americans, one of whom is a woman"?" If that were in fact the situation and she wrote what she wrote, I'd consider that a lot worse than "comprised of" (which makes me wince, to be sure, but that's my problem; old prescriptive habits die hard).

    Sometimes you can figure out what is being said by considering what is not being said. I'm sure Bill Occam would prefer that to inferring implicit sexism in what Dahlia wrote.

  38. S. Norman said,

    May 12, 2011 @ 8:08 am

    "You're entitled to your own tastes, but not to your own facts"
    That's great. I'm going to have to steal that.

  39. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 12, 2011 @ 8:17 am

    While it is amusing to see Ms. Lithwick, of all people, getting in trouble for insufficient political correctness, the linguistic (or metalinguistic) point here for scholars of peevology is that CBK and C Thornett seem to be engaging in the standard prescriptivist move of claiming to perceive an ambiguity (and thus insisting that their preferred prescription ought to be followed because it would Avoid Ambiguity, which is a Good Thing) when no ambiguity exists when the challenged words are read in context and with some degree of Gricean charity. In addition to the points already made about lack of ambiguity in context, i think the semantics of "consisted of" strongly suggest that the list which follows will describe 100% of the relevant whole whereas by contrast "included" would leave open the possibility that the list which followed was partial..

    I think Lithwick's empirical assertion (that the racial/sexual composition of the panel has meaningful predictive value as to their receptiveness to the particular legal argument being made by the lawyers for Virginia above and beyond the predictive value provided by knowledge of which presidents appointed the judges) is certainly contestable, but it's reasonably clearly, if snarkily, communicated here.

  40. J. W. Brewer said,

    May 12, 2011 @ 10:16 am

    Oops. Make that "the semantics of 'comprised of.'"

  41. Jean-Pierre Metereau said,

    May 12, 2011 @ 10:36 am

    I'm waving goodbye to my last pet peeve… sigh.

  42. Coby Lubliner said,

    May 12, 2011 @ 10:54 am

    It was curious to find that in a citation from 1799, comprised was spelled comprized. In a recent LL post ("Webster as an orthographic conservative?") dealing, among other things, with the -ise/-ize issue, one commenter ("John") noted that

    One main argument used to defend -ise spellings in the CGEU is that there are far fewer exceptions if you default to -ise than there are if you default to -ize.

    I take that to mean that, of the polysyllabic verbs ending in -ise/-ize that are not derived from or modeled on -izare, there are more with -ise (surprise, comprise, apprise, advertise…) than with -ize (capsize, recognize…). But it appears that, at least in the past, writers haven't necessarily been consistent with these verbs either.

  43. Bill Walderman said,

    May 12, 2011 @ 12:18 pm

    "can anyone explain to me why the passives 'composed of', 'made up of' and 'comprised of' all use 'of' rather than 'by' to indicate the component parts?"

    I'm not a linguist, but I think the answer to your question is that there is no reason–it's just a convention that the verbs "composed," "made up" and "comprised" use the preposition "of" to introduce the component parts, while "by" is generally used to introduce the agent of a passive verb. But all three verbs use the same preposition for the same argument–isn't this an example of the "quasi-regularity" of prepositions?

  44. Damon said,

    May 12, 2011 @ 1:12 pm

    "First, what ever happened to "Blacks"?"

    Just as one word can have two meanings, to words can have the same or very similar meanings.

    This should not really come as a surprise.

  45. Coby Lubliner said,

    May 12, 2011 @ 3:19 pm

    Interestingly, in Spanish one can equally well say "compuesto de" or "compuesto por" — not that there aren't any peevers who would criticize one usage or the other — but of course "compuesto por" also means "composed by," as a piece of music.

  46. Hermann Burchard said,

    May 13, 2011 @ 1:37 am

    @J.W. Brewer: . . . the linguistic (or metalinguistic) point here for scholars of peevology. . .

    Love your invocation of metalinguistics, albeit put in parentheses set in a longer TIC remark.

    My mathematical philosophy education included C.F. v. Weizsaecker's logic seminar over several semesters, one on Paul Lorenzen's great book Metamathematics. (1962), just fresh out at that time. Since then I have admired the idea of metalanguage, which could be a category applicable to linguistics, especially synchronous linguistics, but also to prescriptivism.*

    – – –
    *) A later Lorenzen seems tempted by and fell prey to the latter aberration, but my ken of him after 1963 is nil.
    – – – –

    That leads to the question what might be the sense of metalinguistics.
    It would be a case of a meta-metalanguage. Still am ruminating over what might be my intended sense of metaprescriptive. Since linguists seem to be so keen to discuss rules, which are prescriptions, I hope the fact that they make rules for rules, good or bad, justifies to jokingly call them metaprescriptive.

  47. Samantha said,

    May 13, 2011 @ 2:35 am

    I once used "is comprised of" in a document and was severely criticized by a committee member who said my text was full of grave errors–but the only "error" she could point out was "is comprised of." She wouldn't even give feedback about the content of the document. Ugh.

    When this happened, I was quick to turn to my personal copy of MWDEU for moral support. I am really glad it is available through Google Books and refer to it often, but some of the pages have unfortunately been poorly scanned. I am especially sad that the entry for "they" is incomplete. I've also noticed that "used to, use to" is blurry.

  48. This Week’s Language Blog Round-Up | Wordnik ~ all the words said,

    May 13, 2011 @ 6:25 am

    […] Ben Stiller's Zoolander pose?) while Language Log took a look at the difference between "comprised of" and "composed of" and the dangers of picking the wrong […]

  49. Logophilius said,

    May 13, 2011 @ 10:29 am

    It's unfortunate that I am always amazed by the civility and thoughtfulness of Language Log commenters.

    Perhaps I've been looking at this prescriptivist vs. descriptivist conflict all wrong, and maybe I don't even need to take a side. The argument is all about what a writer CAN do. As a copy editor, I need to know what a writer CAN do, but my main concern is what a writer SHOULD do. My job (which is merely an extension of the writer's job) is to create the best text, _informed_ by usage history but not _confined_ by it. A good editor (and a good writer) can be neither a staunch prescriptivist nor a complete descriptivist.

    Would it be more acceptable to say not that you can't use "comprised of," but that, maybe, you shouldn't use "comprised of"? If the statement is framed as a choice instead of a fact, would that quell the controversy?

    As for retaining (or creating) distinctions between words: First, John McIntyre makes some great points in his response to this post at http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/2011/05/distinctions_that_matter.html

    Second, we all recognize that language evolves. But there's no reason that a language's evolution shouldn't be, in some areas, guided by thought and reason. Guided evolution is, after all, how we get labradoodles.

    Unfortunately, it's also how we get vicious pit bulls.

  50. Damon said,

    May 13, 2011 @ 10:45 am

    "But there's no reason that a language's evolution shouldn't be, in some areas, guided by thought and reason. Guided evolution is, after all, how we get labradoodles."

    That presumes, however, that it can be. Since we're debating the usage of a very well-educated writer in an edited publication, it seems the horse may not just be out of the barn but well into the next county by now.

  51. Hermann Burchard said,

    May 13, 2011 @ 11:53 am

    @myl: Twenty ladies and gentlemen comprised the party.

    This may be a clue to solve your riddle (if there appears to be one) of the variant uses, to some contradicory, of comprise. It's related to the old canard of the difference of an individual D vs. the singleton set S={D}, not the same as D, which is comprised of D, but also S comprises D. The 10 dames and 10 gents (to be even-handed) make 20 singletons {D0}, {D1}, . . . , {D9}, {G0}, . . , {G9}, a collection of sets not identical with the 20 folk gradually dropping into the festive site. Then comes the party, a set of cardinality 20, not the same as the 20 humans individually drifting around Belgravia: P={D0,D1, . . . ,D9,G0,. . . G9}. Of course, P comprises 20 elements, it contains the 20 singleton sets
    includes 20 English, is comprised of all 20 of them, and: Twenty ladies and gentlemen comprised set P.

    I can only hope the civility and thoughtfulness of this comment will not subtract from the obvious state of total confusion going along with rational attempts of comprising the issue of the three uses.

  52. Hermann Burchard said,

    May 13, 2011 @ 11:55 am

    Sorry for poor copy editing of above comment.

  53. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    May 13, 2011 @ 7:39 pm

    @ JD Sanders:

    Regarding usages that "may make your readers cringe," my recollection is that Garner describes such constructions as "skunked" terms.

    Whether they're grammatical or not, using a skunked expression will cause trouble. Readers will detect a whiff of trouble and blame the writer for it.

  54. Graeme said,

    May 14, 2011 @ 8:51 am

    Why not just say 'a panel of 3 judges all Democrat appointees' and 'a panel of two African-American …'

    What does 'comprising' add, except technocratic sounding jargon? 'Composed' adds a hint of art (what do painters, musicians do?). 'Consist' is humdrum. All three synonyms are just padding.

  55. parse said,

    May 14, 2011 @ 9:44 am

    Even if one accepts Stockton's preferred usage for comprised, I don't understand how Lithwick has erred. Stockton wrote that "whole comprises its parts." In this case the whole is the three-judge panel; the parts are two African-Americans and a woman. Is the whole was comprised of its parts, the panel was comprised of two African-Americans and a woman.

  56. Erica Pannen said,

    May 14, 2011 @ 1:08 pm

    As a linguistic dilettante, I'm in way over my head among the scholars here, but J.W. Brewer's comment,

    "…the linguistic (or metalinguistic) point here for scholars of peevology is that CBK and C Thornett seem to be engaging in the standard prescriptivist move of claiming to perceive an ambiguity (and thus insisting that their preferred prescription ought to be followed because it would Avoid Ambiguity, which is a Good Thing) when no ambiguity exists when the challenged words are read in context and with some degree of Gricean charity."

    makes me wonder how closely this sort of ambiguity can stray into unintentional malapropism territory before it becomes problematic. Just because a phrase or construction can (eventually) be understood doesn't mean that it should be unchallenged.

    What if someone had written "a panel contrived of three judges"?

    If this comment constitutes a slippery-slope stoking of the prescriptivist/descriptivist debate, I apologize, as that isn't my intent.

  57. GeorgeW said,

    May 15, 2011 @ 5:12 am

    @Erica Pannen: There is a difference between 'comprised of three judges,' and 'contrived of three judges.' The former is common usage in which there is no ambiguity. The latter is not and the meaning can only be surmised from the context.

  58. Keith M Ellis said,

    May 15, 2011 @ 5:21 am

    @Erica, I recall that Pullum (I think) recently wrote a post that discussed the question of whether and how a descriptivist distinguishes descriptively appropriate usage from errors.

  59. Erica Pannen said,

    May 15, 2011 @ 10:20 am

    @GeorgeW: All right, but what happens—hypothetically, of course—if 'contrived' in this misusage becomes more and more prevalent, to the extent that it joins 'composed' and 'comprised' in murky synonymy? Does it all slide into entropic babeldom, or are there inherent mechanisms in language to offset such coalescences?

    Apologies if I'm unwittingly bringing up basic theoretical principles.

    @Keith M Ellis: Thanks for the tip. Haven't found the post yet, but will keep seeking.

  60. GeorgeW said,

    May 15, 2011 @ 10:49 am

    @Erica Pannen: If through usage, 'contrived' came to mean 'consists of,' we would not have "entropic balbeldom." Words change in meaning all the time without absolute disorder the result.

    It has been claimed that there are no absolute synonyms. In any event, were this to occur, I think we could expect that 'composed,' 'comprised' and 'contrived' would have somewhat different uses, registers, contexts or connotations.

  61. RF said,

    May 15, 2011 @ 1:28 pm

    I previously posted a comment on the 11th under the name "anonymous", which was deleted for undisclosed reasons. On the hypothesis that "anonymous" is not an acceptable name, while initials are, I am reposting it.

    I don't see anything "snooty" about Angela Stockton's post. She politely brought to the writer's attention a distinction that the writer was quite likely not aware of. ilovejersey then insulted Angela without offering any counterargument. It seems to me that ilovejersey is the one being "snooty". Now Mark Liberman chimes in. He, unlike iloveversey, actually has some factual arguments to counter Angela's position. But he he still has room for pointless personal attacks, dealing with Angela not as a person who has a position that is possibly wrong, but as A Certain Type of Person, implying that she is a "zombie", based on the completely unjustified assumption that she has maintained her position despite being made aware of the evidence that Mark here presents. I think that there is something rather hypocritical about you LPM, railing against the idea that engaging in nonstandard usage constitutes a character flaw, while suggesting that engaging in criticism with which you do not agree does constitute such.

    And what do I mean by "LPM"? It stands for "Linguistic Post-Modernist". It refers to a person who labels all criticism with which they do not agree "prescriptivist", and then, having simply defined "prescriptivist" being as "incorrect" criticism, then proceeds to make the vacuous and tautological claim that prescriptivism is invalid. It refers to the sort of person who says that there is no such thing as a “wrong” usage, only nonstandard ones, blithely ignoring the fact that they are therefore asserting that referring to nonstandard usage as “wrong” is… a wrong usage of the word “wrong”. They are the sort of people who say that dictionaries should be determined by usage, not the other way around, and then assert that the vast majority of people are using the word “slang” incorrectly (not “nonstandard”, but INCORRECTLY) by making a tortured dictionary argument http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/003774.html .

    It seems to me that the term “prescriptivist” is simply a meaningless term that people sling around to denigrate people they disagree with. If you believe that Angela's position is wrong, why not simply explain why, instead of obfuscating the issue with pointless epithets of “prescriptivism”? Looking at the Wikipedia entry for Linguistic Prescription, it's claimed that “In linguistics, prescription denotes normative practices on such aspects of language use as spelling, grammar, pronunciation, and syntax…
    Prescriptive approaches to language are often contrasted with descriptive linguistics, which observes and records how language is practiced.” But normative practices are themselves part of how language is practiced. Putting aside the issue of whether it is correct or not, “Parts compose a whole, while a whole comprises its parts” is a statement about how language is practiced. Again, it seem to me that the determining factor for whether something is “descriptivist” or “prescriptivist” is not anything inherent to the statement, but rather the view that one has regarding the statement.

  62. RF said,

    May 15, 2011 @ 1:28 pm

    “Just as one word can have two meanings, to words can have the same or very similar meanings.
    This should not really come as a surprise.”
    Applying GeargeW's criteria, “to” instead of “two” is a common usage that, at least in this case, causes negligible ambiguity. Would it be “prescriptivist” to accuse Damon of error?

  63. GeorgeW said,

    May 15, 2011 @ 2:15 pm

    RF: 'Two' and 'too' is a different issue. This is a spelling error of homonyms. To my knowledge, no educated speaker of English intentionally writes, "Two my sweetheart."

  64. Ben Hemmens said,

    May 15, 2011 @ 3:05 pm

    @ RF:
    "They are the sort of people who say that dictionaries should be determined by usage, not the other way around,"

    Well in English at least, I think the first of those has been the dominant idea of what a dictionary should do for rather a long time now. It's not a postmodern development: you can choose, I suppose, between Georgian and late Victorian.

    "It seems to me that the term “prescriptivist” is simply a meaningless term that people sling around to denigrate people they disagree with."

    I do sometimes wonder at the perseverance of Pullum & Co. in producing putdowns of precriptivist peevage. But there are two possible explanations for someone expressing chronic frustration with some aspect of the world. One is that they're an endogenously grumpy nutcase; the other is that they are really on to something which much of the world refuses to grasp. Some people really do know better because they happen to have done the spadework. And if you read the collected Posts of Pullum, I don't see how you can fail to recognize that the man has done a monumental amount of real research on the issues he's writing about.

    What I think is the best lesson from LL is that people's own perceptions of what they do with language – ranging all the way from pronunciation to usage – are often very unreliable. In particular, people who seem to function perfectly well as professional writers and editors have the strangest ideas and contradict their own dogmas even in the very texts in which they expound them. So you have tirades against the passive containing perfectly normal uses of the passive, etc.

    As a professional translator and writer, I find it very helpful to have this tendency pointed out. Getting on my high horse is bad for a) my blood pressure and b) my relationships with my clients, and I need to make sure I only do it when really necessary. And since the world outside my office, god knows, is full of more than enough stupidity to keep me busy, I'd also prefer to choose carefully the parts of it that I fret about: hopefully bits where I really do know better than them (and might be able to change something) and not bits which are the misguided products of my own uncorrected imagination.

    And compared to most criticism of most things on the Internet, the LL people really are a pretty civil bunch. If you think "zombie" is an exceptionally nasty word for someone who persistently ignores (tons of) evidence, then you haven't been getting around much. It wasn't even really directed at Ms. Stockton personally.

  65. Keith M Ellis said,

    May 15, 2011 @ 7:26 pm

    Ben, that was a lovely, thoughtful, and–one might hope–very helpful comment.

    I'd amplify your assertion that, yes, on the merits the descriptivists are right and the prescriptivists are wrong, particularly so in the case of the LL bloggers; but I'd also mention that another good reason for the "perseverance of Pullum & Co. in producing putdowns of precriptivist peevage" is that for every example of such a putdown, there's about a thousand published examples of prescriptivist peevage.

    It's not as if this is beating a dead horse. The horse is very much alive, it's left the barn, it's trampling the rose garden and urinating on the porch.

    Finally, anyone that attaches the label "Post-Modernist" to something as an epithet can be safely ignored immediately once the p-word has occurred. Alas, I failed to heed my own advice partly in the hope that the p-word would be followed by, say, relativist claptrap, or perhaps an entirely gratuitous and irrelevant swipe at feminism. I might have chuckled.

  66. Hermann Burchard said,

    May 15, 2011 @ 8:41 pm

    A parallel case of divergent personal taste is where Paul Halmos ("Measure Theory") in a booklet on mathematical writing habits and style ("don't work on it late, decide to complete the proof in the morning," or such, as one example) advised to use "contained in" as long-hand English for the epsilon "element of" symbol, and "included in" for the hairpin "subset of," while I personally thought the recommendation ought to have been exactly reversed: Subset N={0,1,2, . . .} of natural numbers is contained in the set of Z of all rational integers, but element 3 is included in N as well as in Z.
    This discussion thread is a wonderful example of linguistics: The snake devours its own tail.

  67. RF said,

    May 15, 2011 @ 11:59 pm

    @GeorgeW
    I applied the distinctions that you previously identified. Are you saying that those are insufficient? Are you distinguishing between a typo and a "thinko"? It seems to me that, as one example, people's insistance on using "literal" incorrectly has indeed led to significant linguistic loss, as it is now very difficult to convey the fact that something is, in fact, literal without elaborate explanations.

  68. RF said,

    May 16, 2011 @ 12:25 am

    @Ben Hemmens said
    I don't see why you quoted half of a thought and then responded to it as if it were a complete thought.

    "And if you read the collected Posts of Pullum, I don't see how you can fail to recognize that the man has done a monumental amount of real research on the issues he's writing about."
    I'm not questioning his knowledge. But I think that ((criticizing (those who criticize other's usage as ignorance)) while (criticizing (those who criticize other's usage) as ignorance)) is hypocritical, regardless of how much more knowledge than me the person doing it has (and yes, I do believe that "than" is a preposition).

    "So you have tirades against the passive containing perfectly normal uses of the passive, etc."
    So you think that there is something odd about George Orwell complaining about how the passive is used so much?

    "If you think "zombie" is an exceptionally nasty word for someone who persistently ignores (tons of) evidence, then you haven't been getting around much. It wasn't even really directed at Ms. Stockton personally."
    Before this article, I shared Angela Stockton's position. Partway through, I was thinking "Well, Mark Liberman has made some good arguments. I think I will refrain from propounding my previous position in the future." Then I got to the end, and suddenly he was talking about "zombies". To whom is he referring? Angela Stockton? Me? I don't understand what his motivation for putting that in was. I didn't see any examples of anyone ignoring evidence, and I felt a bit offended that he was suggesting that not being aware of this alternative usage was due to willful ignorance. My problem wasn't with the use of "zombie" for such a person; it was the implication that people who have a problem with this usage is such a person. I think that "the Anglea Stocktons of this world" is, in this context, a very disrespectful construction. There is only one Angela Stockton in this world. "Angela Stockton" is not a category of people; she's a particular individual.

  69. RF said,

    May 16, 2011 @ 12:49 am

    @Keith M Ellis
    "for every example of such a putdown, there's about a thousand published examples of prescriptivist peevage."
    My point is that it's an arbitrary category. You have a wide variety of phenomena:
    1. Made-up rules, such as the "than is not a preposition" alluded to before
    2. Positions that are arguably based on ignorance, such as the "comprise" issue, or " 'till' is a corruption of 'until' ".
    3. An actual rule that is not universally followed, such as the "If it was/were" issue discussed in another thread.

    The term "prescriptist" is simply a nomenclature innovation that "descriptivists" have come up with to distract people from the fact that these are completely different categories. Justifying putdowns against caregory 3 based on the fact that people have engaged in putdowns in favor or category 1 is simply a fallacy.

    "Finally, anyone that attaches the label "Post-Modernist" to something as an epithet can be safely ignored immediately once the p-word has occurred."
    Well, now you know how I feel about people who use the word "prescriptivist" as an epithet. I'm still trying to figure out what to call this position, as the self-applied term "descriptivist" is simply a framing label intended to obscure the absence of content beyond "I don't like people who disagree with me" in the term. Perhaps "relativistic linguistists" would have been a better term.

  70. RF said,

    May 16, 2011 @ 1:07 am

    There are other categories as well, such as
    4. Rules that pretty much everyone agrees on

    For some reason, category 3 is included with 1 and 2, but separated from 4. If I say " 'persue' is a misspelling", I am in little danger of being accused a "prescriptivist". Why? Because that's a widely accepted claim. But it seems to me that any reasonable, literal definition of "prescriptivism" would include such claims.

  71. Ben Hemmens said,

    May 16, 2011 @ 4:55 am

    "If I say " 'persue' is a misspelling", I am in little danger of being accused a "prescriptivist". Why? Because that's a widely accepted claim. But it seems to me that any reasonable, literal definition of "prescriptivism" would include such claims."

    No, I don't think so. If the evidence is clear that only one version of something is used, then that becomes a prescription. The person expressing it is no more a prescriptivist than everyone who goes to a regular yoga class is a Buddhist, Hindu or Jainist.

  72. GeorgeW said,

    May 16, 2011 @ 4:59 am

    @RF: "Are you distinguishing between a typo and a "thinko"?"

    The example at hand, 'comprised,' was not mistakenly written. It was intentionally written and based on ample, and authoritative, precedent as detailed in the post. There was no communication failure. There wasn't even any ambiguity. A 'typo' is an unintended mistake.

  73. Ben Hemmens said,

    May 16, 2011 @ 10:25 am

    Orwell and passive: LL's been there and done that.

  74. RF said,

    May 17, 2011 @ 11:13 pm

    Ben Hemmens said,
    "No, I don't think so. If the evidence is clear that only one version of something is used, then that becomes a prescription. The person expressing it is no more a prescriptivist than everyone who goes to a regular yoga class is a Buddhist, Hindu or Jainist."
    Well, the claim that you allegedly are responding to is that a claim would be prescriptivism, yet your response consists of a discussion of who is a prescriptivist. You seem to be silmultaneously equivocating between prescriptivists and people who engage in prescriptivism, and insisting that they are not the same.

    Also, your post supports my position that "prescriptivist" is a linguistic "true Scotsman"; prescriptivists are derided as being unreasonable, while any person exhibiting reasonableness is defined out of the category of "prescriptivist". If I understand you correctly, your definition of "prescriptivist" is "someone who engages in unreasonable prescriptivism".

    GeorgeW said,
    "The example at hand, 'comprised,' was not mistakenly written."
    I didn't ask about "comprised".

  75. What’s the deal with “compose” and “comprise”? « Motivated Grammar said,

    February 23, 2012 @ 12:48 pm

    […] more on these words, check out Arrant Pedantry and Language Log's takes, which talk more about the passive forms than I […]

  76. Treesong said,

    April 7, 2014 @ 11:51 am

    I'm coming to this very late, but I can't resist responding to RF:

    If I understand you correctly, your definition of "prescriptivist" is "someone who engages in unreasonable prescriptivism".

    No, that's too circular. Our definition of "prescriptivist" would be more like "someone who engages in unreasonable prescribing", where reasonable prescribing is based on the actual usage of educated English speakers or writers, rather than personal pet peeves.

    As for calling people 'zombies', that was in reference to 'zombie rules', which are 'rules' that were never justified but were so firmly inculcated in grade school that they refuse to die and one must consider avoiding demonstrably correct usages for fear of offending a zombie-rule-ridden minority of one's readers. As witness the MWDEU advice on the use of 'comprise'. (I know the 'rule' for using 'comprise' but prefer to avoid it entirely.)

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