Monday, June 25, 2007

Usage question: comprised (of)

A banner day in Verbville: Our very first, utterly unsolicited usage question. Before turning to the (highly worthy) question, gentle reader, be warned that this is not a forum about contemporary usage, though we comment it on regularly, usually with relish.

Now, to the question:
We are having a disagreement on the use of comprised and comprised of. My position is that comprised means composed of so saying comprised of is like saying "composed of of". What do you think?
This is one of those usage questions that even linguists seem to fret over — where we don't bat an eye at split infinitives and many proudly use literally in its recent, non-literal sense. In fact, I not long ago participated in an editorial decision where one of the best editors in the field of linguistics raised this very point about a paper written by another very senior colleague. The web is pretty well papered over with discussions of this point, like this one, so nothing here is close to original.

Here's what Merriam-Webster's Collegiate (11th ed.) says, starting with their third definition:
3 : COMPOSE, CONSTITUTE

usage 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.
This gets it exactly right, from what I know, except that I have no idea about specifically literary usage. As is often the case, it's easy to avoid the problem, as they suggest. (There's a growing body of work in Second Language Acquisition about avoidance as a strategy among learners, by the way.)

I'd also note that we do see some instances of 'preposition doubling' (see here), including an example pretty close to composed of of:
This league consists of mostly of players …

11 comments:

Wishydig said...

Perhaps it's a harmonic convergence. I recently posted on this usage as well.

It is one of the more difficult language changes to defend. Try as I might.

Tho no one seems to mind the similar shift that took place with apprise.

alienvoord said...

So it's like the active and passive forms of this verb have the same meaning. That's really cool.

Kurt said...

According to Garner's Modern American Usage, "The phrase is comprised of is always wrong and should be replaced by some other, more accurate phrase."

Anonymous said...

I have a question involving the use of the verb "log in" vs. "log".

Which question is correct or which is "most" proper?

1. "Can you log into the system?"

or

2. "Can you log in into the system?"

The second seems to be redundant however the correct verb is being used. The verb "log in" is associated with a computer.

The verb "log" in question 1 refers to recording such as recording a ships daily record of actions. For example. Capt Kirk often kept a Captain's log; although this is the noun. He logged the action he took (i.e., He would "log" it down).

The verb "log in" is correct in the sense that if someone from the help desk was asking a question such as "Can you log in?" It is comprehensible that they are asking if I could access the computer system.

The proper response would seem to be "No / Yes, I can('t) log in into the system.

Which is correct and why?

Thanks,

Mike

Anonymous said...

Mike: I completely avoid "log in" and "log on" in all scenarios. The two most common abuses I see for "log in" or "log on" are when describing simply visiting a website and when authenticating to an online account (such as your online banking account).

If you want to simply describe visiting a website, such as Google or CNN, do not say "log on to CNN.com to get the latest breaking news." Simply say "visit CNN.com to get the latest breaking news."

If you want to tell customers how to access their personal information on your web site with their username and password, do not say "log in with your username and password to check your account balance." Instead, say "authenticate with your credentials to check your account balance."

Anonymous said...

Comprise - think of it as "the whole to the sum of its parts".

Constitute - think of is as "parts to the whole".

Sorry, but I'll always side with Kurt, not to mention the authority he cites to substantiate his stand. "Comprised of" is basically a bastard term in English; what makes better sense is "constituted of', or perhaps "composed of". You can say "comprised by"; e.g., "Be advised that any parts comprised by this kit (the whole!) cannot be sold separately".

Anonymous said...

The English language is controlled by users of the language. "Is comprised of" is used so frequently, and we all know what it means (which is what language is for, getting meaning across) that it seems completely silly to me not to accept and fully the use. This is where the language is going. Why appear like old fuddy-duddies?

Anonymous said...

I wonder whether log in should just be considered in the same manner as walk in. It is not necessary to say "Can you walk in into the room?"

With respect to is it comprised or comprised of there is also the matter of tense. I would like to know whether it is correct to say "The old fleet comprised of 27 ships" or "The old fleet comprised 27 ships"

Anonymous said...

"the old fleet comprising 27 ships"

nostatusquogirl said...

How about "My work comprised a huge portion of this subject."?

Anonymous said...

Comprise is a transitive verb, like (and etymologically similar to) embrace. You can't be embraced of, why should you be comprised of? And of course you can comprise something, that is what the verb is there for. But the real point was made above. If you use 'comprised of' 1 in 3 people will think you are pig ignorant. Do you need to displease the fuddy duddies?