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This guy edited 50,000 Wikipedia articles to fix a grammar error that's not even an error

Andrew McMillan has an entertaining longread in Medium about the adventures of a Wikipedian named Giraffedata who's dedicated his life to one specific type of edit to the world's largest encyclopedia: eliminating uses of "comprise" as a synonym for "compose." He has almost 50,000 pedantry-driven Wikipedia edits, all on this one point. But like so many other obsessions of the small-minded, the alleged rule that the US comprises 50 states, but 50 states compose the US is without any basis in the actual history of English usage.

Mark Liberman, the University of Pennsylvania linguist, has written about this several times and unearthed many perfectly respectable cases of parts comprising a whole throughout the history of modern English, including examples from distinguished authors such as Charles Dickens and Herman Melville.

Consider:

  • "For so tho' a Triangle in the most simple and precise Conception of it be only a figure comprised of three right Lines …" — John Norris, An Essay Towards the Theory of the Ideal or Intelligible World, 1704.
  • "Seeing then the angles comprised of equal right lines are equal, we have found the angle FDE equal to the angle ABC; …" — Isaac Barrow, translation of Euclid's Elements, 1714.
  • "The propositions which comprise the several heads of our testimony..." — William Paley, A View of the Evidences of Christianity, 1794.
  • "... the wheels and pinions comprising the wheel-work" — W. Jones Adams, Lectures on Natural and Experimental Philosophy, 1799.
  • "Nor do heroes, saints, demigods, and prophets alone comprise the whole roll of our order." — Herman Melville, Moby Dick, 1851.
  • "These observations comprise the whole of the case." — Charles Dickens, Hard Times, 1854.

There is no circumstance in which insisting on a hard distinction between comprise and compose adds clarity to the sentence, and ample history of distinguished writers using them interchangeably. Injecting fussy, pointless prescriptivism into your social circle is fine if you happen to enjoy being a pain in the ass. But doing it to a socially useful collaborative project like Wikipedia is just destructive. The thousands of unpaid contributors who comprise the Wikipedia community deserve to be supported by editors and readers, not undermined by nonsense.