Compromising positions

« previous post | next post »

In its article on Google's year-end "Zeitgeist" listings of the most searched terms, BBC News reports:

The things people around the globe have in common are a strong interest in socialising and politics, according to Marissa Mayer, vice president of search at Google.

"Social networks compromised four out of the top ten global fastest-rising queries while the US election held everyone's interest around the globe," she wrote on Google's official blog.

I checked back on the Google Blog and what Mayer wrote was:

Social networks comprised four out of the top 10 global fastest-rising queries, while the U.S. election held everyone's interest around the globe.

So the BBC editors, besides changing 10 to ten and removing the comma before while, apparently also changed comprised to compromised. A fascinating miscorrection (or incorrection, if you prefer).

Of course, it's always possible that the Google Blog entry originally had compromised but then was later fixed to read comprised. That doesn't seem likely, however, since only the Beeb appears to have used the compromised wording in quoting Mayer. And of course, even if it were in the original post, the BBC editors should have caught the miswording and [sic]ed it.

This does not seem to be a spellchecker-induced Cupertino, since it's hard to imagine a spellchecker dictionary that includes compromised but not comprised. Instead I'm guessing it's an entirely human miscorrection, wherein comprised somehow looks "wrong" to the editor and is changed to compromised despite not making sense in context.

Even when spelled correctly, Mayer's usage wouldn't satisfy a lot of prescriptivists. As the American Heritage usage note explains:

The traditional rule states that the whole comprises the parts and the parts compose the whole. In strict usage: The Union comprises 50 states. Fifty states compose (or constitute or make up) the Union. Even though careful writers often maintain this distinction, comprise is increasingly used in place of compose, especially in the passive: The Union is comprised of 50 states. Our surveys show that opposition to this usage is abating. In the 1960s, 53 percent of the Usage Panel found this usage unacceptable; in 1996, only 35 percent objected.

But back to comprised/compromised. Google turns up many similar substitutions, such as when "is compromised of" appears where "is comprised of" is intended (again, using the prescriptively scorned sense). The substitution is so common that it even shows up in numerous edited books and journals on Google Book Search:

Category 5 is compromised of two types. (The Human-Computer Interaction Handbook)

The implementation is compromised of various system level components deployed at various locations within a target network. (Computer Security – Esorics 2005)

As discussed in detail in Chapter 2, the formula is compromised of three basic elements. (The Tongues of the Fathers)

More than two thirds of this list is compromised of patients awaiting renal transplantation. (Living Donor Organ Transplantation)

Her tattoo art is compromised of black ink and shading work only. (Body: Jewish Choices, Jewish Voices)

The structure of the underlying items is compromised of both forward and backward traces. (The Psychology of Learning and Motivation)

Information Lifecycle Management is compromised of the policies, processes, practices, and tools used to align the business value of information with the most appropriate and cost effective IT infrastructure. (Emerging Trends and Challenges in Information Technology Management)

This body is compromised of delegates representing theological colleges in the various states of Australia. (Theological Reflection and Education for Ministry)

The sociodemographic profile of the individual is compromised of their age, sex and socioeconomic status. (Urban Dynamics and Spatial Choice Behaviour)

Significantly, membership is compromised of senior staff including the international students' counsellor, teachers of English as second language and senior staff. (Worlds of Learning)

And so on and so forth. Any thoughts on why this substitution is so commonplace? Is a malapropism giving way to a new sense of compromise?

[Update, 1 pm EST: BBC News has already changed it back to comprised in their online article. The wording with compromised can still be found on blogs that copied the BBC article, such as here and here, as well as this article from PC Adivsor Advisor.]


  1. Martyn Cornell said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 1:16 pm

    As of 18:05 GMT this had been "re-corrected" back to comprised. The comma was still missing – and changing "ten" to "10" would certainly be because the BBC style book will say "spell out numbers one to nine only". (Which is why the points are missing in US in the BBC's version – universal British style is US, no points, while universal American style seems to be U.S. – sorry to veer off-topic.)

    "Compromise", on a quick Google search, seems to be a much commoner word than "comprise", and I can imagine someone's fingers unconsciously substituting the commoner word for the rarer as they typed this paragraph out, but that seems unlikely here, as if would almost certainly, surely, have been a case of copy-and-paste from the original Google Blog entry …

  2. Jim said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 2:04 pm

    "Compromise" is also frequently used in discussions of the internet and security (a system is compromised if a cracker breaks into it) so in this context the verb might have even more semantic overlap than usual. Although here it makes the miscorrection doubly unfortunate, because then the sentence implies that social networks hacked Google's results.

  3. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 4:17 pm

    There's a simpler explanation of this particular error in this particular case: The reporter might not have been cutting and pasting from the Web site, but typing what he/she read. In that case, it's probably in the neighborhood of a typo contributable to muscle memory. I'd wager that BBC reporters use "compromise" (correctly) a lot more than "comprise."

    Yes, it isn't necessarily the most efficient and accurate way to quote something from the Internet, but human decisions aren't always centered around efficiency.

  4. Rubrick said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 10:02 pm

    I have a sad suspicion that the correction is usually done by someone who isn't familiar with the word "comprise", and thinks they're correcting a typo on the part of the original writer.

  5. Garrett Wollman said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 10:58 pm

    My instinct would be to say that it's a hash collision on the part of the reporter, and almost certainly unconsciously generated while typing. Since the shapes of the two words are so similar, it's not surprising that a hurried Web editor might not have caught the mistake. (I have terrible time typing "Cape Cod"; I always want to make it into "Cape Code" instead. I also have trouble with long -ble/-bly words, where my fingers invariably want to turn them into -bility instead.)

  6. outeast said,

    December 11, 2008 @ 4:58 am

    It's the insertion of the comma that interests me, since it seems to me to change the meaning of 'while'. Without the comma, 'while' seems to have a definite restrictive time sense (roughly corresponding to 'during the period that'), while with the comma it more closely approximates 'and' or 'but' in function. Does anyone else share this sense, or am I being idiosyncratic?

  7. Andrew Clegg said,

    December 11, 2008 @ 8:10 am

    "[Update, 1 pm EST: BBC News has already changed it back to comprised in their online article. The wording with compromised can still be found on blogs that copied the BBC article, such as here and here, as well as this article from PC Adivsor.]"

    PC Adivsor?

    Is this an instance of Someone's Law?

    I can't remember who Someone is but I'm sure there's an internet law about this sort of thing :-)


  8. Rachel Cotterill said,

    December 11, 2008 @ 8:41 am

    'Compromised' definitely looks like a typing error to me. My fingers are awful when it comes to typing more familiar words, although my finger is usually on the delete key by the time I consciously realise what's going on.

    My feelings on the comma are as outeast describes.

    I really don't understand why an editor would feel the need to change quoted text at all, unless to shorten it… that's what [sic] is for.

  9. Bob Lieblich said,

    December 11, 2008 @ 8:53 am

    Andrew Clegg asks if "PC Adivsor" is an instance of Someone's Law. There is such a law, formulated roughly as "Anyone correcting an error will commit a similar error in the process." I don't know all the names, but over at alt.usage.english (yes, Virginia, we still have newsgroups) they call it Skitt's Law, after a long-time regular poster (who's still there).

  10. Arnold Zwicky said,

    December 11, 2008 @ 9:35 am

    To Bob Lieblich: note the following, from Ben Zimmer's posting of 21 July:

    We've noted a number of different originators for what Jed Hartman called the Law of Prescriptivist Retaliation: corrections of linguistic error are themselves inevitably prone to error. Around 1999 this truism was hit upon by no less than three independent sources: Hartman, Erin McKean, and alt.usage.english contributor Skitt.

  11. Arnold Zwicky said,

    December 11, 2008 @ 9:55 am

    To Rachel Cotterill (and others): the typing error in which you drift from the beginning of an intended word into a more familiar word is known as a "capture error" or "completion error"; see discussion by Mark Liberman (and various commenters, including me) back in May, in the posting "A Cupertino of the mind".

  12. outeast said,

    December 11, 2008 @ 10:03 am

    @ Andrew Clegg, Bob Lieblich: My favourite name for this (documented of course on this blog) is 'Muphry's Law'.

  13. Ed Rorie said,

    December 11, 2008 @ 1:24 pm

    "A fascinating miscorrection (or incorrection, if you prefer)."

    I do very much prefer "incorrection." You did with "incorrect" and "correction" the same thing that Reese's did with chocolate and peanut butter.

  14. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    December 11, 2008 @ 2:31 pm

    See also the Wikipedia page for Muphry's Law. Oh, and also this post, which includes discussion of incorrection vs. miscorrection.

  15. Rachel Cotterill said,

    December 12, 2008 @ 9:14 am

    More completion errors – back in the days of handwriting, my thoughts went so much more quickly than I could write that I used to start of writing the beginning of one word, and if it had a letter in common with a word I was planning to use later on in the sentence it was not uncommon for me to write a 'hybrid' word and then continue the sentence from there… I have done this occasionally with typing but not so often (I can type a lot more quickly than I write).

    Thanks for the interesting blog (which I only found a couple of days ago) – I'm a linguist but I've moved over to computation so this is a good read! :)

  16. Nigel Greenwood said,

    December 14, 2008 @ 6:32 pm

    @ Martyn Cornell: Re ten vs 10, I've just seen a prime example of this silly publishing superstition. Today's Sunday Times Culture section carries a review of a production of Twelfth Night with Derek Jacobi as Malvolio. The review quotes these lines from Feste's Song "What is love? 'Tis not hereafter":

    "In delay there lies no plenty,Then come and kiss me, sweet and 20 [sic], Youth's a stuff will not endure." 12th Night, indeed!

RSS feed for comments on this post