One Guy Is Not Happy That Wikipedia is Comprised Of Errors

Hey, grammar police, there’s a new sheriff in town. Well, maybe not new—Wikipedia user Giraffedata, also known as 51-year-old software engineer Bryan Henderson, has been editing the site since 2007, and in all these years, his tens of thousands of edits have mostly been the same. One day, Henderson noticed the use of ‘comprised of,’ an improper use of the verb to comprise, and he’s been on a mission ever since, correcting every instance of the mistake he finds.

A feature on Medium tells the tale of a man, well, sorta dedicated to his task. Despite the fact that the sheer volume of his edits makes him one of the most active Wikipedia editors ever, he doesn’t spend as much time on the project as you might expect. Being a software engineer, he’s written a program that trawls Wikipedia for instances of the phrase, then cross-checks them with articles he’s already edited—if a page’s author is particularly insistent on using ‘comprised of,’ that’s not a battle Henderson is intent on fighting. Henderson goes into all the articles left, makes the edits manually, and gets on with his night. It’s his nightcap, basically.

What’s wrong with the use of ‘comprised of’, anyway? I’ll let Henderson’s own lengthy Wikipedia article on the subject do the talking. Suffice it to say he’s got a case, per the rules of English grammar (‘composed of’ and ‘consists of ‘ should be used instead).

Even with Henderson’s efficient editing process, it’s still an awful lot of time to spend on one little grammar mistake. But, you know what? This guy is awesome. He’s awesome because he’s doing the grammar police thing the right way. He’s not confronting people on message boards and calling them morons. He’s not trying to put his own intelligence on parade. He’s not trying to make some sweeping, smug statement about the parlous state of education in the 21st century. The dude’s just putting his head down, correcting a mistake, and offering a composed, reasoned argument for why his edits are necessary. Good for him.

Apparently, many of the people whose Wikipedia pages Henderson has edited have gone with the argument that language is a constantly evolving thing, and that the usage and meaning of words changes over time. That’s true, but there’s a case for a subtle distinction to be made. Writers play fast and loose with grammar and word usage all the time, but there’s a difference between knowingly taking creative license and unwittingly making a mistake. I think Henderson’s going after the latter, and that’s cool with me.

Besides, in his nearly dissertation length page defending his crusade, he points out that mistaken use of ‘comprised of’ isn’t consistent enough to be considered language evolution in action, which would necessitate a broad popular understanding of what the precise, newly evolved meaning of ‘comprised of’ is. Looks like this software engineer has dabbled in a little linguistic theory, too.

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