Wednesday, June 20, 2007

That'll learn ya

Buffy just finished reading a book that her former professor and now friend Chris Blake wrote. Along with the occasional bursts of laughter (because he's quite funny) and the frequent pauses to discuss and investigate his claims (because he's quite provocative) she also pointed out a few mistakes (because he's quite human). There were very few -- such editing oversights as giving a character two different names and giving a quote two different speakers.

Buffy is a close reader. I flinch every time she looks at my writing. She follows arguments well and she catches all inconsistencies. And she remembers from several years ago Blake enlightening his students by informing them that nauseous (causing nausea) is commonly misused when the speaker means nauseated (feeling nausea); and that comprised of is misused when the speaker means composed of.

So there on page 82 of his book Buffy found that her mentor wrote

and the human sanctuaries that comprise the church are free to wonder and probe without fear

A stumble she figured. Surely he remembers his old rule. Then on page 92:

It was a test comprised of one hundred problems

Blake is a fine writer and editor. He uses words knowingly and he expresses himself clearly. And I'm not going to say anything critical about his use of the word comprise in these sentences. When Buffy shook her head on reading them I asked her to temper her distaste. There were certainly other instances of Blake's writing that deserved a some teasing.1

I will however take issue with his lesson to the students. Perhaps he will temper the very advice he has shown he doesn't always heed.

Here's the usual argument regarding this word: To comprise means to bring together or collect. So a house comprises thousands of bricks. A mall comprises many smaller stores. And a university comprises several schools/colleges. Ergo! (those pedants like to say as much as they can in Latin) it is incorrect to say that a burrito is comprised of lettuce tomatoes beans cheese etc. It is incorrect to say that 88 keys comprise a full piano keyboard. And it is doubly incorrect to say that this nation is comprised of 48 states.

Before I address the fluidity of language I should note that the etymology of the word does go back to a meaning of collecting and gathering. And if we look carefully we find that the word merges with comprehend. According to the OED the -prise ending was probably formed by analogy with several other English words such as enterprise -- the verb derived from the formally identical noun.

To put it simply: nouns that ended in -prendre showed a pattern of becoming verbs ending in -prise. Some verbs ending in -prendre followed suit.

Now some will wail and moan and argue still that comprised of meaning made up of is a recent misunderstanding and misappropriation of the word. That it's a flat mistake: the wrong meaning. This argument will often go to such horrific worst case scenarios as "what if up starts to mean down?" They argue that words so arbitrarily linked to meanings will eventually become meaningless.

Point 1) The very fact that they know a word is being used incorrectly means that the intended meaning is clear. If I say "Two cups comprise a pint" or "I listened to a choir comprised of 32 singers" the meaning of the word is clear. Not arbitrary. We are allowed to use context.

Second point) It's not a recent trend. The OED entry includes the meaning "To constitute, make up, compose" and provides citations as early as 1794. Nine citations are included for this meaning: more quotations than are given for any other use. The passive use meaning "To be composed of, to consist of" gets four citations of its own. The earliest included is from 1874.

Meanings change. And it's mere convention that determines which meanings connect to which forms. This is not to say that those conventions don't serve a purpose. My point is simply that when the currents of language create the occasional polysemy and the occasional complete shift it is not a deterioration. It is merely evidence that language is of the people for the people and yes by the people.

And scoff as you might I'll bet you are okay with this (I now address the skeptics). Let's take a look at the history of apprise. The -prise ending is also derived (by analogy) from a form ending in -prendre. That early form of the word (from the French) had the meaning to grasp or understand. We still have that meaning preserved in the familiar form apprehend. And apprise once had the same meaning. But it went through a very reasonable shift and came to mean inform teach or enlighten.

Where's all the complaining about that shift in meaning?


Take a look at his Union College profile page (link above) and note his use of aerobie as a mass noun. It's like he thinks it's a real sport or something. (This may be related to the aggrandizing effect of mass nouns that I've mentioned before.) Now I agree that "throwing aerobies" sounds like a juggling act. Couldn't he just say "throwing around the ol' aerobie"? Yeah. That sounds more like fun and less like a sanctioned and organized activity.


  1. What if the quote on page 82 means what it says: that the church is part of the Human Sanctuary, of which there are many?

    Then again I could just ask him.

  2. Wait. Hold on. Stop. "Allowed to use context?!?" What is the world coming to. Surely, Proxima est Mors.

  3. Haha...I LOVE catching people like professors in mistakes like always makes me feel better to know that they make mistakes too even though some of them think they are perfect...

  4. Well I hope my post doesn't come across as a "gotcha." In fact the point is to support a realistic amount of flexibility.

    And his injunction against some of these uses was actually probably more of a casual discussion observing and noting that several words are switching in meaning.

    And Buffy isn't happy with "distate" to describe her reaction upon reading "comprised of." Too strong a word. Perhaps curiousity.

    When it's part of a moving consensus (as comprise is) I wouldn't call semantic shift--even reversal or inversion--a mistake.

  5. C'mon irrelevant cowboy...You don't want me to ignore syntax in my analysis of a phrase do you? That's a vital part of language competence and a huge part of productive ability.

  6. (Thanks for the emendation, Michael.)

    And Daniel, I agree. His use of "comprise" supports the historical use of the word if we understand him to be saying that the church falls under these human sanctuaries. I, however, (perhaps wrongly) assumed he was saying the human sanctuaries make up the church, compose it, that the church compasses and subsumes the human sanctuaries. Or, at any rate, should.

    Who knows? Maybe he intended the ambiguity; as much as all sanctuaries are, in a sense, churches, the church should a foriori take care to be just that: a sanctuary. The difference between comprising and composing is probably moot.

    But he was dead wrong on page 92.
    Next we'll be saying "bad" to mean "good."

  7. I'm taking a look at that to see if it addresses any of the current and interesting pursuits of linguistics.

    So far...

  8. Buffy, your last sentence kills me.

  9. Daniel,

    Thank you. Or, I'm sorry.

  10. Was nobody going to mention my use of "distate" and "curiousity" in the same comment?

    Maybe I should claim to be promoting the cause of flexibility in all areas of language.

  11. So, if everybody knows what you mean when you incorrrectly write "comprised of" instead of correctly using "composed of," that makes it all right.

    If a lot of people use a particular word or phrase incorrectly, it becomes all right to do so.

    There are no rules, there is only what people feel like doing.

  12. There are rules.

    Meaning in particular is determined by convention. (Conventions are just agreed upon rules.) If we all agree on a word then that's the right word.

    If a lot of people use a word or phrase "incorrectly" then yes -- once everyone forgets the old meaning the new meaning is correct.

    You know what a deer is right? If I point at a wolverine and call it a deer would you say I'm wrong? Probably. And you'd have good reason to say so. Because nobody uses 'deer' to mean an animal like a wolverine.

    But 'deer' used to mean any four-legged animal. Are we using deer incorrectly now just because everyone started using it differently hundreds of years ago?

    There are rules. But the rules do change.


Thanks for reaching out.

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